Tag Archives: promise

When the Spirit Doesn’t Come

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I can think of few experiences more disheartening than seeking God’s face and not finding it. We struggle enough to remember Him in our busy daily lives, to hunger for Him in the midst of so many competing attractions. But when we finally say no to everything else and discipline ourselves to tune in to His voice, it can feel like the ultimate betrayal when He doesn’t immediately reward our efforts with a blissful mountaintop experience.

We want spiritual climax without the amorous preliminaries. We want a relational harvest without the months of weeding, planting, watering, and waiting. Underlying our efforts at holiness and our attempts at devotion, we have this absurd assumption that God should feel honored by our intentions and be standing at attention, ready to jump whenever we feel like spending some time with Him.

Somewhere between the extremes of slavish groveling and childish petulance, we struggle to know exactly what we should expect of God relationally. Is He the sovereign, almighty King into whose holy presence we are unfit to ascend, or is He the compassionate Father who stands with arms ever spread just waiting for us to come home?

Looking back over the course of history, He is a good deal of both. The Spirit comes when His people call, but not always on cue.

When the slaves in Egypt cried out for God to come, He kept them waiting awhile. After their deliverance (and according to His instructions), they worked hard and long to prepare a place where they could continue to meet with Him. And when the tabernacle was built, the people purified, and the priests consecrated, God’s glory cloud visibly descended and filled that space, providing a very real experience of His presence among His people.

Similarly, when David took proactive steps to create a dwelling place where the Spirit could come in all His glory, he received a promise for the future rather than the immediate answer he was looking for. His son Solomon picked up where he left off, clearing the ground, laying the foundation, and building a magnificent structure faithful to its heavenly counterpart and worthy of its divine Tenant. And when the temple was finally built, the sacrifices offered, and the prayers lifted up, God’s Spirit once again came in an overwhelmingly tangible form, His presence gloriously visible to all who had gathered to partake of it.

Then the people of Israel—the priests, the Levites and the rest of the exiles—celebrated the dedication of the house of God with joy. For the dedication of this house of God they offered a hundred bulls, two hundred rams, four hundred male lambs and, as a sin offering for all Israel… And they installed the priests in their divisions and the Levites in their groups for the service of God at Jerusalem, according to what is written in the Book of Moses.
…The priests and Levites had purified themselves and were all ceremonially clean. The Levites slaughtered the Passover lamb for all the exiles, for their relatives the priests and for themselves. So the Israelites who had returned from the exile ate it, together with all who had separated themselves from the unclean practices of their Gentile neighbors in order to seek the LORD, the God of Israel.
Ezra 6:16-21

Perhaps the most perplexing wait was the one the worshippers experienced in the post-exilic temple. After years of crying out in exile, risking life and limb to trickle back into the land, building walls with sword in one hand and trowel in another, and finally managing to erect a slightly diminished but nonetheless glorious temple, the Spirit didn’t show up. The people had assembled, the sacrifices had been offered, and the priests installed, but the glory cloud never came. No smoke. No fire. No filling.

Though they couldn’t have understood it at the time, the Spirit was planning to return differently than they had expected, and much later in history than they had in mind. In the meantime, how were they to feel? As though they hadn’t tried hard enough, or maybe they had missed some prerequisite that God had intended of them? Or perhaps it was God’s fault. Maybe He had quit on them or no longer cared. In moments of faith they could see His presence through the small favors He sent their way, but the long waiting with little visible evidence of His coming made it hard to keep seeking His face.

The tiny bundle of flesh carried into that temple in his mother’s arms hundreds of years later would contain the longed-for Spirit, but only those who hadn’t quit watching for it would recognize His coming.

On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about.

When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.
Acts 1:4, 2:1-4

He would be the one to pour out the same Spirit on another group of waiting worshippers who had gathered, been purified, and were faithfully offering up sacrifices of praise. Who knows what the disciples were expecting or even if they were expecting at that time, but when fire and wind descended from heaven to fill their house, I think they all knew that the Spirit had come. The wait had been worth it.

Thankfully we don’t have to wait for centuries to experience the Spirit’s presence with us now. Each ray of sun touches us with His warmth; each meal on our table fills us with His provision. And more than that, God’s Spirit testifies directly with ours that we are securely loved, not abandoned. At times He meets with us in powerfully tangible ways, speaking into our minds and moving in our hearts in a manner indescribable but no less real. At other times He seems silent and inactive, provoking us to frustration and longing.

But even this desire for Him to come is the fruit of His presence already at work in us. It is the wind behind the faith that keeps us walking and waiting, preparing our hearts and creating space in our lives for the Spirit to move. He may not come when or how we expect. But when He comes, the soul feels its worth.

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Running on Empty

gas guageAs a child, George Mueller stories struck me as particularly romantic and exciting. I dreamed of living that amazing, edge-of-your-seat kind of life, constantly getting stuck in crises and then watching God show up with His miraculous deliverance.

But living the stories on a daily basis is radically different from listening to them from a comfy couch. For those whose lives are defined by constantly wondering where the money is going to come from to pay each pending bill or by surviving one crisis only to face another, this lifestyle is far from the exhilarating rush that many imagine. It is an exhausting way to live.

Faith is an exhausting way to live.

I suspect that at times, Jesus’ disciples reached the point where they would have gladly traded their adventures for a couch, the opportunity to sit and listen to other people’s exciting stories rather than endure yet another grueling test of faith. Being sent out without an expense account probably got old after a while, and healing one town-full of sick people only to face the next was hardly rejuvenating.

The apostles gathered around Jesus and reported to him all they had done and taught. Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.”
Mark 6:30-31

Exhausted and empty, they came to Jesus for some much needed refueling. Hopefully with Him around they wouldn’t have to bear the weight of constant responsibility for themselves and for everyone else. But the crowds were inescapable and the needs incessant.

So they went away by themselves in a boat to a solitary place. But many who saw them leaving recognized them and ran on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them. When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things.
Mark 6:32-34

Even Jesus’ attempts to get away for some R&R were perpetually frustrated. True to His teachings, Jesus never relieved Himself of the responsibility to love the many “neighbors” who kept tracking Him down. And faithful to their Master, His disciples never took a day off from following in His footsteps.

By this time it was late in the day, so his disciples came to him. “This is a remote place,” they said, “and it’s already very late. Send the people away so they can go to the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat.”
Mark 6:35-36

But when their own resources were so completely depleted, how could they possibly keep giving out? The hour was late, their stomachs were empty, and their emotional wells had long-since run dry. Surely it was reasonable to ask the crowds to sort themselves out for a while. What else could Jesus possibly expect of them?

But he answered, “You give them something to eat.”

They said to him, “That would take eight months of a man’s wages ! Are we to go and spend that much on bread and give it to them to eat?”
Mark 6:37

Just when they felt fully within their rights to take a sabbatical from the whole Good Samaritan business, Jesus upped the stakes. He pushed them beyond the limits of their carefully hoarded resources, calling them to cater for a hungry crowd big enough to make Martha cry. And who would bear the financial burden for such a massive undertaking? Jesus sent them to take an inventory of their own impossibly meager stash.

“How many loaves do you have?” he asked. “Go and see.” When they found out, they said, “Five–and two fish.”

Then Jesus directed them to have all the people sit down in groups on the green grass.
Mark 6:38-39

In their poverty and exhaustion, all the disciples could see was what they didn’t have. But Jesus called them to count the resources already provided for them. Sure that child-sized lunch would only put a drop in the bucket of their need, but like the widows’ last handful of grain in Elijah’s time, it was the seed form of the multiplying miracle that Jesus was about to do. All that they needed had already been provided.

Our tanks may be on empty,
but His never run dry.

Of course from a human standpoint, their needs were far from supplied. Counting those tiny loaves and fish while eyeing a crowd of five thousand was almost laughable. But what the disciples forgot to count was the vast storehouses of the One who was asking so much of them. In their slavish worry over how they would accomplish the impossible, they forgot that with Him all things are.

So they sat down in groups of hundreds and fifties. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to his disciples to set before the people. He also divided the two fish among them all. They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces of bread and fish.
Mark 6:40-43

Nevertheless, in obedient faith they set the table, raising the expectations of those around them and risking that they all might be disappointed. Piece by piece they kept handing out whatever Jesus handed them, never knowing when the stream of bread would dry up. And moment by moment, God faithfully supplied the manna for each person under their care.

In the most backhanded way imaginable, Jesus was refueling His disciples’ faith tank. Rather than relieving them of responsibility or offering them a spiritual retreat, He supplied them with the opportunity to witness Him at work through them. Their step-by-step faith was an integral part of the miracle that He gradually unfolded before their eyes, one they never could have foreseen and yet in retrospect would love to retell.

Like the disciples, we want the comfort of seeing God’s provision in advance. We get tired of feeling forever on the edge of physical and emotional bankruptcy. But so much of our feeling of emptiness comes from looking at what we don’t have, worrying over where tomorrow’s provision will come from. Instead, Jesus calls us to look back at what He has already supplied. With Him at our right hand, those negligible scraps become the basis for all we need and more.

The most amazing of His miracles come through the daily slog of our faithful refusal to quit.

Our tanks may be on empty, but His never run dry. The most amazing of His miracles don’t come with a sudden bang, but rather through the daily slog of our faithful refusal to quit. Only at the end of each day will we be able to look back and see how all of our needs have been supplied, with basketfuls of leftovers to share.

Don’t forget to count them.

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?

The Longest March

History is full of marches. Marches for rights. Marches in protest. Some marches have culminated in victory and freedom. Some have disintegrated in violence and oppression. But underlying them all is a pressing need, a problem so deeply felt that it propels limbs and souls into motion.

IMG_8626Sunday morning I awoke with a similar urgency. A march had been organized in our town that I just had to be a part of. Unlike most political or social marches, this one included a large number of children, and the banners we carried were a bit unconventional. As we marched down the old, sleepy streets of St. Andrews, we sang our slogans rather than shout them. But our message was no less pointed.

“We have a King…”

May God arise, may his enemies be scattered; may his foes flee before him…. But may the righteous be glad and rejoice before God; may they be happy and joyful.
Psalm 68:1-3

What at face value must have looked like an odd assortment of Sunday-school children and their overly enthusiastic chaperones was really a continuation of the longest running march in the world. In a way, this march goes back as far as human oppression has been present on our earth. It represents the long trains of sufferers who, for whatever reason, have felt their need for a deliverer and have cried out to God to send one.

Sing to God, sing praise to his name, extol him who rides on the clouds… A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling. God sets the lonely in families, he leads forth the prisoners with singing; but the rebellious live in a sun-scorched land. When you went out before your people, O God, when you marched through the wasteland, … You gave abundant showers, O God; you refreshed your weary inheritance. Your people settled in it, and from your bounty, O God, you provided for the poor.
Psalm 68:4-10

The children of Israel participated in this march as they left Egypt. Shuffling along in slave rags with their few earthly possessions in tow, their company hardly had the feel of a triumphal procession. And yet its strength lay in the One riding the clouds at the front of their line. He would lead them right through the midst of raging oppressors and surging seas, tenderly providing for their needs and safely guiding them to a safe haven they could call their own.

…the Lord [has come] from Sinai into his sanctuary. When you ascended on high, you led captives in your train; you received gifts from men, even from the rebellious– that you, O LORD God, might dwell there. Praise be to the Lord, to God our Savior, who daily bears our burdens.
Psalm 68:17-19

Generations later, their descendants would find themselves straggling along on a similar march. Once again the subjects of political abuse and international displacement, they would trickle out of exile in Babylon and limp towards home in Zion. But what had become of their king? Who would defend them from greedy power pariahs and opportunistic land sharks? Who would organize their economy, oversee their defense, and ensure their rights? Even with Nehemiah’s wall and Zerubbabel’s temple, they needed a king.

Your procession has come into view, O God, the procession of my God and King into the sanctuary…. There is the little tribe of Benjamin, leading them, there the great throng of Judah’s princes, and there the princes of Zebulun and of Naphtali. Summon your power, O God; show us your strength, O God, as you have done before…. Sing to God, O kingdoms of the earth, sing praise to the Lord, to him who rides the ancient skies above, who thunders with mighty voice.
Psalm 68:24, 27-29, 32-33

So centuries later when a rag-tag group of beggars, cripples, and kids started picking up palm branches and laying down clothes, an age-old need was finally being filled. Their impromptu march was a culmination of the ages, a fulfillment of what generations of oppression-weary souls had been sighing for. Finally, the King had come. Only this time He came riding a donkey instead of clouds, wrapped in homespun rather than light, and heralded by children rather than angels.

Jesus entered the temple area and drove out all who were buying and selling there. … “It is written,” he said to them, ” ‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it a ‘den of robbers.’ ” The blind and the lame came to him at the temple, and he healed them.
Matthew 21:12-14

But this King’s gentle, approachable appearance in no way belied His power to accomplish what His people needed of Him. Jesus took immediate action in responding to their “Hosannas” by scattering their oppressors and gathering the weak. With the money barons cleared out and the broken-bodied brought in to the temple, He set to work doing the job of a Liberator: making wrong things right.

Of course we know where that landed Him. But in the grand scheme of things, Jesus’ death on the cross was a blip on the screen, a seeming setback that ultimately cinched His victory over all the powers that oppress His people. Sickness and spirits, sin and shame, tears and tyrants would all be put to flight under His reign of righteousness and peace. And this reign is still in the process of expanding out to the four corners of the earth through the ongoing march of God’s people.

Jesus’ reign is expanding to the four corners of the earth through the ongoing march of His people.

This is the victory procession I got to be a part of enacting in my little town this past Sunday morning. I marched for my brother whose heart is broken with grief. I marched for my sister whose body is broken with cancer. I marched for people in the Middle East and Nigeria who are oppressed by evil terrorist regimes. I marched for others around the world who are tormented by evil spiritual forces.

IMG_8629But unlike most emotionally-charged demonstrations, our march was marked with gentleness, not anger; with celebration, not fear. We walked through the streets of our town singing of the reign of our loving, liberating King. We proclaimed Him as the solution to our problems in this time and place just as He has been through all of history.

“We have a King who rides a donkey, and His name is Jesus.”

Tiny Things

baby imageNations rage, victims quake,
Children die, terrorists shake
Our souls to the core.
Cancer wins, marriages fail,
Dreams die, depression prevails:
We cry for a cure.

“And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.”
Genesis 3:15

Innocence gone, evil won,
Curse pronounced, Eden done.
All hopes lost but one.
A tiny seed, a fragile child
Would still the powers raging wild.
Woman’s labor works: a son.

“I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore… and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.”
Genesis 22:17-18

Abraham hopes, Sarah dreams
Of children like stars, promised seed
To fill the earth with blessing.
Impotent man and barren woman
Despair and laugh, doubt but believe,
All hope on God resting.

…And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”
Matthew 2:15

Dream diverted, children overtaken;
Slaves in Egypt, feeling forsaken.
Was God’s promise done?
Endangered child, saved from the river;
Infant nation, through waters delivered.
“Out of Egypt I called my Son.”

A record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ the son of David, the son of Abraham…
whose mother was Tamar…
whose mother was Rahab,
whose mother was Ruth…
whose mother had been Uriah’s wife
Matthew 1:1-6

Prostitute’s offspring, immigrant’s line,
Seed passing through wombs of all shape and kind,
Overlooked, so small.
From David the youngest, least of these
Raised to power, father of kings,
Stems the greatest of all.

“But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.”
Matthew 2:6

War-torn land, occupied country,
Backwater town, least among many,
Host to eternity.
Young woman’s womb, watery and tight,
Rough wooden trough, borrowed for the night.
Home for divinity.

Yet you brought me out of the womb; you made me trust in you even at my mother’s breast. From birth I was cast upon you; from my mother’s womb you have been my God. Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help.
Psalm 22:9-11

Infant arms, helplessly bound
Newborn mouth, unable to sound
The gospel of the kingdom.
Vulnerable life, carried around
Vagabond child, hunted down.
The hope of the nations.

From the lips of children and infants you have ordained praise because of your enemies, to silence the foe and the avenger. …You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor. You made him ruler over the works of your hands; you put everything under his feet.
Psalm 8:2-6

Power discarded, frailty embraced,
Position lowered, heaven’s throne replaced
With earth’s dust, un-glorified.
Despised by the great, praised by the weak,
Disarming dark powers with the turn of a cheek.
The seed fell and died.

The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them.
Isaiah 11:6

But from the dust rising it grew
Mighty tree filling earth with something new:
A cure for all nations.
Children that lead, leaders that serve,
Eden restored, Heaven on earth:
A new creation.

…unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me.
Matthew 18:2-5

So why look down on little things,
Small starts, tiny tasks, and the trouble they bring?
God became one of these.
Why chafe at roles that seem downgrading,
Snub a thirsty child, too busy earth saving?
He’s good company.

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…
Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death–that is, the devil–and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.
Hebrews 2:10-11, 14-15

Humble obedience, being made low
Trains me like Him, helps me to know
My place in His story.
I bear the seed, through weakness give birth
To small deeds of mercy, new heavens and earth.
In this is victory.

Longing for Eden

Once upon a time a garden grew
Where darkness had covered and Spirit flew
Planting the seed of something new:
The conception of Eden.

Beauty and order, life and light
Sprang from the earth and ended the night
God in His garden declared it all “right”:
The birth of Eden.

Not yet finished, good but not best
God stepped back and man failed the test.
Fruit prematurely plucked, cursing the rest:
The loss of Eden.

Again God came near and His Spirit hovered,
Planting the Seed in the womb of another
Angels sang with hope recovered:
The promise of Eden.

Withered vines healed, fruit restored
Mustard seed grew, moving toward
A garden more sweet and full than before:
The glory of Eden.

Still unfinished, the garden felt its lack
As thorns pierced His brow and He took its flack.
Sun hid its face as earth received Him back:
The Seed of Eden.

Garden grows on, new fruit arrives.
Pink cheeks fill our hearts, rosy dreams fill our eyes.
We celebrate the gift of life:
The joy of Eden.

Dark shadows steal over fresh rosy cheeks.
Mother heart pierced, father heart weeps.
Fruit prematurely plucked, hope and curse meet:
The death of Eden.

Sun still comes up but limp limbs hang down.
What comfort, what purpose in going on?
Empty arms, barren trees, sweet fruit now gone:
The loss of Eden.

But sure as the dawn we for look for the morn
When seed will again sprout, life be reborn
Empty tomb greet those who show up to mourn:
The resurrection of Eden.

Until then we tarry, inspired to nurture
The garden around us, our friends, family, culture.
Preparing the earth for its bright promised future:
The coming of Eden.

In Memory of
Eden Wang-Hua Clark
July 2, 2014–October 20, 2014

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Reconciling Justice

“The truth is I hate them and find it hard to forgive them with all of my heart…”

My heart wrenched as I listened to the frank testimony of one of my African students. A mature, dedicated servant of Christ, he lives with the perpetual torment of visually reliving the night of his parents murder.

Soft lights. Gentle laughter. A family relaxes together after their evening meal.

Harsh intruders. Vicious blades. Screaming husband and wife fall beneath relentless blows. A terrified child hides in the corner, helplessly watching his parents being hacked to death.

They have no struggles; their bodies are healthy and strong. They are free from the burdens common to man; they are not plagued by human ills. Therefore pride is their necklace; they clothe themselves with violence. …
They say, “How can God know? Does the Most High have knowledge?” This is what the wicked are like– always carefree, they increase in wealth.
Psalm 73:4-12

Run for safety. An eyewitness report to the police. Appeal for justice. But the murderous neighbors walk free. Laughing. Gloating. Powerful. Prospering.

Forty years later and they still walk free. Free of trouble, free of worry, free of justice.
Have they really gotten away with this? Is there no justice for those slaughtered parents, no consequences for their heartless butchers? Is there no healing resolution for this wounded man, living with the fallout of traumatic memories and agonized questions?

We can pity our enemies because
we know the outcome of their story.

How is he supposed to feel toward his parents’ unpunished, unrepentant murderers? What does it look like to love these neighbors?

Surely in vain have I kept my heart pure; in vain have I washed my hands in innocence. All day long I have been plagued; I have been punished every morning. If I had said, “I will speak thus,” I would have betrayed your children.
Psalm 73:13-15

As a Christian leader, he has devoted his life to reconciliation, beginning with his own humble, repentant posture before God. He has tirelessly ministered to others, shepherding them towards reconciliation with God and mediating their conflicts with each other. Overflowing with compassion and mercy, this gentle man of God has faced more than his share of cheek-turning opportunities as he leads the church, demonstrating in each situation his commitment to love and his trust in God’s justice.

But as for me, my feet had almost slipped; I had nearly lost my foothold. For I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.
When my heart was grieved and my spirit embittered, I was senseless and ignorant; I was a brute beast before you.
Psalm 73:2-3, 21-22

But in this case, that justice seems to have failed. From where he stands, God seems to have blessed the wicked and punished the righteous. It doesn’t fit with what God says about Himself, but how else is he supposed to make sense of what is happening? He struggles to keep trusting God’s goodness, but the pressure of his ongoing experience is driving a wedge between them.

We can put down the burden of revenge because we trust God to carry the weight of justice.statue of justice

Listening to this African brother’s story has added to the burden I feel over all the unresolved injustice in our world. I feel caught along with him in the contradiction of faith and sight. What about the countless stories of unavenged victims and expansive oppressors that swirl through our history books and across our newsfeeds? What justice is there for the victims of ISIS and Boko Haram?

When I tried to understand all this, it was oppressive to me till I entered the sanctuary of God; then I understood their final destiny.
Psalm 73:16-17

I am tempted to question God’s justice, to be swallowed up by my own conflicting emotions of love and hate, of forgiveness and revenge. What we both need is a heavenly glimpse, the opportunity to see these gut-wrenchingly wrong situations without the earthly limitations of time and space.

Surely you place them on slippery ground; you cast them down to ruin. How suddenly are they destroyed, completely swept away by terrors! As a dream when one awakes, so when you arise, O Lord, you will despise them as fantasies.
Psalm 73:18-20

Viewed from the heavenly courtroom, the scene looks completely different. We see those once intimidating oppressors cowering in terror before the throne of God, their formerly invincible strength melting like wax before the Almighty. We see the illusion of their carefree control evaporate before the reality of God’s righteous justice. And we are satisfied.

Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.
Psalm 73:25-26

Our hearts can once again rest in the goodness of God. Our minds can once again be reconciled to His just work in an unjust world. What is lacking is not His commitment to intervene or His faithfulness to follow through. It is our ability to see the complete picture of what He is doing.

Those who are far from you will perish; you destroy all who are unfaithful to you. But as for me, it is good to be near God. I have made the Sovereign LORD my refuge; I will tell of all your deeds.
Psalm 73:27-28

The assurance of God’s justice forms the basis of our reconciliation. We can put down the burden of vengeance because we know He will carry it to completion. We can pity our enemies because we know the outcome of their story. And we can draw near to God in full assurance of faith, knowing that He who promised is faithful.

Assaulted but…

If you make the Most High your dwelling– even the LORD, who is my refuge–then no harm will befall you, no disaster will come near your tent. For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.
Psalm 91:9-12

“I don’t know how to make sense of this. I thought You were supposed to show up, to protect me from harm. I thought that if I loved You and served You with all my heart, You wouldn’t let anything like this happen to me. I trusted You. I put myself in harm’s way for Your sake. And now look at me…”

But you have rejected, you have spurned, you have been very angry with your anointed one. You have … defiled his crown in the dust. You have broken through all his walls and reduced his strongholds to ruins. All who pass by have plundered him; he has become the scorn of his neighbors.
You have put an end to his splendor and cast his throne to the ground. You have cut short the days of his youth; you have covered him with a mantle of shame.
Psalm 89:38-41, 44-45

Tears ran down my face as my feet pounded the pavement. The physical intensity of running released my pent up emotions, and along with them the agonized cries of my heart. How could I reconcile God’s promises of protection and honor with my experience of being beaten and violated? I didn’t doubt His strength to stop my attackers, nor did I doubt His presence with me as they threw me about and had their way with me. But that left me with a deeper, even more painful question.

How long, O LORD? Will you hide yourself forever?… Remember how fleeting is my life. For what futility you have created all men!
O Lord, where is your former great love… ?
Psalm 89:46-47, 49

Who was I to God? A disposable item, designed to be used up and thrown away? I had been plundered and defiled, broken and discarded. Was that all I was worth to Him? Where was that great love that He had professed for me? I felt more like a sheep handed over to be slaughtered than like a cherished child.

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”
Romans 8:35-36

A sacrificial lamb. That rang a bell. Jesus had been treated this way, too. Those promises of love and honor and protection had been made to Him, too. Satan had even pulled out that particular psalm to quote to Him, reminding Him that His Father would send angels to protect Him from all harm, even a stone in His path that might threaten His toes.

But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities… He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.
Isaiah 53:5, 7

So why didn’t He? Didn’t Jesus plead with His Father in the garden, begging Him to deliver Him from the evil that was about to happen? And yet the angels didn’t show up. God didn’t intervene. They all stood back and watched as His body was pummeled, His soul was tormented, His life was snuffed out.

The Sovereign LORD has opened my ears, and I have not been rebellious; I have not drawn back. I offered my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who pulled out my beard; I did not hide my face from mocking and spitting.
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?
Isaiah 50:5-6; Psalm 22:1

If anyone ever had reason to feel unloved by God, to feel completely abandoned by the Father, Jesus did. He subjected Himself to everything that God had called Him to do. He exposed Himself to danger out of loving obedience to His Father. And where did that get Him? Broken. Desecrated. Used up. Dead.

Because the Sovereign LORD helps me, I will not be disgraced. Therefore have I set my face like flint, and I know I will not be put to shame. He who vindicates me is near. Who then will bring charges against me? Let us face each other! Who is my accuser? Let him confront me! It is the Sovereign LORD who helps me.
Isaiah 50:7-9

And yet God had repeatedly affirmed His love for Jesus in advance. A descending dove. A thundering voice. “My Son. I love Him. I delight in Him.” Jesus knew who He was to God. He knew God would stay true to their relationship, even when it was put through the ultimate test. He endangered Himself because He knew that nothing could come between them. Nothing could separate Him from His Father’s love, not trembling with fear in the garden, not being ripped to pieces by accusers in court, not crying out in abandonment on the cross, not even the silent helplessness of the grave.

“Because he loves me,” says the LORD, “I will rescue him; I will protect him, for he acknowledges my name. He will call upon me, and I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble, I will deliver him and honor him. With long life will I satisfy him and show him my salvation.”
Psalm 91:14-16

Jesus endured all these because He believed His story would not end there. He trusted His Father’s love, even when He felt abandoned. He clung to His Father’s promises, even when they seemed forgotten. And sure as the dawn, God came through. The angels showed up to move the stone out of His way. The Most High came down to revive His body, restore His soul, and lead Him to glory.

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 8:37-39

Broken and trembling and messy, I basked in this unfailing love. I drank in the end of Jesus’ story like the parched soul that I was. God had not turned His back on me. And He was not finished with me. Hardship and danger, violence and contempt had certainly taken their toll on me, but they had not succeeded in separating me from His love. Sure as the dawn, God would come through for me, too. He had me by the hand, and He was leading me up the resurrection path to glory.

Romans 8:28-30

Persevering Hope

“Hope? I have no hope left for anything good in this life.” I had been clinging to it against all odds, but hope had died with the last baby. I was still going through the motions of everyday life, but I had lost all motivation to press forward. Forward towards what? More pain, more disappointment, more death? My faith in God was still intact, much to my relief, but I had quit on hope. It just hurt too much.

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

God gently called me back to hope through His Word. The book of Hebrews was written to people who, like me, had already weathered some pretty intense storms. They had not backed down, they had not quit on their faith, and they had even joyfully accepted their hardships because of their hope in God’s coming kingdom. But having persevered through the first several rounds of suffering, they were losing steam. Life was so hard, the journey was so long, the cost was so high: how could they keep going?

So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded. You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised. … But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who believe and are saved. Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see (Hebrews 10:35-11:1)

Those of us who travel this long, hard road need relevant, regular reminders that our hope is not in vain.

But what cause did I have for hope? My experience with hope was that it inevitably resulted in even greater disappointment. I had kept on sharing my faith with resistant people. I had prayed for my friend with cancer to be healed. I had persevered in hope that God could give life to this last baby, despite the discouraging ultrasounds. But none of it had worked. I still held on to a theoretical hope for the life to come, but that seemed so distant that it made little difference in the way I felt now. What good thing did I dare raise my eyes to in the here and now?

Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. Hebrews 12:2-3

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.
Hebrews 12:1

This call to hope was not a harsh demand; it was a gentle reminder. It nudged my perspective back up to the truest reality. Jesus walked this path ahead of me, and He made it to the other side. He, along with that great cloud of witnesses listed in Hebrews 11, kept putting one foot in front of the other, clinging to hope despite the constant barrage of circumstances that tried to steal it away. That journey was not easy for them—they still bear the scars—but they did eventually get what they had hoped for.

And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, … but let us encourage one another–all the more as you see the Day approaching.
Hebrews 10:24-25

I, like the believers in Hebrews, needed to hear that I was not alone in my struggle. No wonder the author of Hebrews encouraged them to keep getting together so that they could cheer each other on! And we are in that same company. All of us traveling this long, hard road need frequent, tangible reminders that, as much as it might not feel like it in the moment, our hope is not in vain. Our Prize is waiting.

Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. Hebrews 10:23