Tag Archives: resurrection

When Hope Comes Hard

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

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

We want certainty; He offers Himself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We want certainty; He offers Himself.

Advertisements

Dead before God

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

Dear Weary Warrior,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Today, darkness is your friend.

In God’s Kitchen

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

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

Sadly, I got my wish.

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

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

He came to a broom tree, sat down under it and prayed that he might die.
“I have had enough, Lord,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.”
1 Kings 19:4

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

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

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

‪He replied, ‘I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.’‬
1 Kings 19:10

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

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

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

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

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

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

Promoting Power

power-in-hand-300x200Power is definitely out of favor. It may have been yesterday’s fad, but today it is synonymous with egomaniacal villains, brutal military dictators, and decomposing nuclear reactors. Generations of abusive leaders and corrupt systems have trained us to fear power, automatically accepting the belief that power corrupts.

Our solution? Democratic processes. Separation of powers. Limited terms. Public accountability.

Who elected God eternal autocrat of the cosmos?

All of this falls apart when we try to apply it to God. Who elected Him eternal autocrat of the cosmos? What happens when public opinion polls plummet in response to the way He is running things? The idea of an indeposable, unlimited, self-appointed ruler should terrify us if absolute power corrupts absolutely.

But what if the corrupting component of power could be overcome? What if someone were able to use such power purely for good?

In spiritualized, Sunday-school mode we nod our heads and sing “My God is so BIG…”, but in cynical, real-world mode we shake our heads and mutter, “When pigs fly!” No wonder we have a hard time taking the parts of Scripture seriously that talk about God as King, not just over demons, cancer, and eternal souls, but over every piece of earth, every law of nature, every whim of man.

The One enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord scoffs at them.
He will rule from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth. …his enemies will lick the dust. The kings of Tarshish and of distant shores will bring tribute to him… All kings will bow down to him and all nations will serve him.
Psalm 2:4; 72:8-11

The Psalms describe God as the mighty King over all the earth, laughing at any opponent who would seek to be His rival. He instates and deposes rulers, making His enemies eat dust and His captives pay tribute. He comes across as a hard-core ace who knows what He wants and never fails to get it.

For he will deliver the needy who cry out, the afflicted who have no one to help. He will take pity on the weak and the needy and save the needy from death. He will rescue them from oppression and violence, for precious is their blood in his sight.
…the God of Israel gives power and strength to his people.
Psalm 72:12-14; 68:35

But what does He do with all that power? The same Psalms describe Him as the hero of the poor, the champion of the broken. He uses His power to help the helpless, protect the defenseless, and pick up the devastated. Better yet, He holds His power lightly, passing it on to His people with astonishing ease and in lavish portions.

Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go…
…”But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear.
Matthew 28:18; Acts 1:8; 2:33

Nowhere is this better illustrated than in Jesus’ redistribution of power just after His resurrection. Having taken on death and won, He had just achieved authority over all of heaven and earth. But rather than flexing His muscles and showing off the full extent of His awesomeness, He celebrated by dumping buckets of Spirit-power over His disciples’ heads. He took the power and authority that had been given to Him and used it to empower them. Their commission? The same work He had been doing: help the needy, heal the broken, and tell everyone the good news that He had set them free.

..his incomparably great power for us who believe. 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…
But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. This is why it says: “When he ascended on high, he led captives in his train and gave gifts to men.” …It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up…
Ephesians 1:19-21; 4:7-12

God is no Juan Peron or Mao Tse-tung, using His power to help the poor while clinging to it at all costs. He delights in sharing His power with His people. Yes, He is in the process of taking all His enemies down, but that is only a part of His greater effort to build us up. As He hands His power over to us one gift at a time, we are enabled to participate in developing and strengthening our corporate selves: the Body of Christ.

This is no one-man show. It’s true that history is all about God. But He turns it around and makes it all about Us.

God’s is a power that empowers.
With His power, ours can be the same.

As someone who has personally suffered and closely walked with others who suffer from abusive uses of power, I am initially tempted to recoil from the idea of God’s absolute power. But when I look at the track record of what He does with it, I am inspired to give myself to promoting His power.

I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ…
Ephesians 3:16-18

And I have to believe that as humans are increasingly filled with His Spirit’s kind of power, we too will be able to hold power in this way. Of course we will do so imperfectly, with selfishness and corruption forever tugging at our sleeves. God has built accountability and the division of gifting into our system, providing necessary checks on our use of power. But I am no longer afraid of power. It is, like any other gift from God, able to be used for great harm or for great good.

God’s is a power that empowers. With His power, ours can be the same.

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.

A Friend to God

http://www.lionwhisperer.co.za
http://www.lionwhisperer.co.za
Lent again.

My tummy grumbles and my spirit joins in. I don’t really feel like forty days of self-imposed discomfort.

What’s the point? Life is tough enough as it is. Why add to the misery?

But then I think of someone I love. He has gone through incredibly tough stuff, grief beyond my ability to comprehend. I want to be able to relate to Him, to understand what makes Him tick. But how can I if I don’t share His experiences?

Abraham got a chance to do just that. He got to know what it would feel like to lose his only child. He experienced the heart-rending agony of a father watching his son silently plead for mercy as he was led like a lamb to the slaughter.

Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? … And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend.
James 2:21-23

Though he didn’t know it at the time, Abraham was getting a backstage pass into God’s cosmic play. He was getting the chance to enact God’s future story, to experience the same grief and elation that God the Father would feel over the death and resurrection of His only Son.

Moses, too, got the inside scoop on God. He got to bear the brunt of an ungrateful crowd griping about how he was handling things, angry about their health and safety conditions and ready to get rid of him as soon as he had outlived his usefulness to them. He also got to feel the agonized betrayal of a people head-spinningly quick to forget all he had done for them when their convenience or comfort was at stake.

Now Moses used to take a tent and pitch it outside the camp some distance away, calling it the “tent of meeting.” …As Moses went into the tent, the pillar of cloud would come down and stay at the entrance, while the LORD spoke with Moses. …The LORD would speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks with his friend.
Exodus 33:7-11

But along with the pain, Moses got the privilege of being God’s friend. He got to feel what God feels and know what God thinks. Incredibly, he even got to chat with God face to face, swapping stories about the “kids” and deciding how they would handle them. Sometimes they argued, often they disagreed, but their relationship was characterized by mutual commitment and love. At the end of the day, God was still God and Moses still a mortal. But they were friends.

Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.
John 15:13-15

It’s easy to think of holy men long ago who walked with God that way. But when I stop to think about what God says He wants from us, I am dumbfounded. His greatest “command” is to love Him with all that I am. He doesn’t want a polite, contractual relationship in which I do my bit and He does His. He wants me to engage Him with all my heart, soul, body, and mind. He wants me to speak my mind and to listen to His. At the end of the day I am still the child and He the Father; I am the servant and He the Master. But we are friends.

Then he said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.”
Matthew 26:38
Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’
Luke 15:6

And our friendship will express itself in my getting involved in His life story just as He is involved in mine. If I am His friend, I will love the things that He loves and do the things that He wants doing. But on a deeper level, if I am His friend I will groan when He groans and laugh when He laughs. I will stay awake with Him in the garden, watching and praying as He faces the darkest night of His soul. And I will party with Him in the kingdom, celebrating each stray sheep that is found and each lost son that comes home.

Rather than being what I most avoid,
hardship is a gateway to what I most desire.

Just as sharing similar experiences ushered Abraham and Moses into closer friendship with God, so walking a mile in God’s shoes enables me to relate with Him in greater solidarity. As I learn to see myself and the world around me through this lens, I come to value suffering in a new way. The trials that I experience (whether voluntary or not) are opening my mind and shaping my heart to be able to commune with God in ways I couldn’t before. Rather than being what I most avoid, they are a gateway to what I most desire.

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

So I dive into the disciplines of Lent full on—not because the Bible commands it or because I enjoy self-imposed misery, but because I really want to know Christ. I want to be His friend in joy and in sorrow, in struggle and in triumph, in the middle of His story and at the end. I want to walk these forty days of trial with Him so that I can also celebrate their victorious completion with Him. This is my opportunity to invest in our relationship.

For better or for worse, I get to be God’s friend. Now that’s a privilege worth suffering for.

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.

Faded Glory

My friend is dying.

attachmentOnce one of the most beautiful women I knew, her glory is fading. Cancer has sealed her throat, stopping the ready laughter and stilling the spry step that I knew her by. Pain is her constant companion, cutting her off from food, from sleep, from being able to enjoy much of anything. My soul revolts at the thought of her bright eyes dulled with pain, her pretty jaw clenched with suffering. And though her spirit fights on, her body is wasting away.

This is so wrong.

Flowers aren’t supposed to be crushed mid-bloom. Beautiful symphonies aren’t supposed to be cut off mid-note. Exquisite works of art aren’t supposed to be ruthlessly defaced.

And yet death doesn’t follow my rules.

It insists on corroding beauty, on stealing away the final remnant of God’s image in human flesh. And as I watch it do its nasty work in my friend, my soul cries out in protest.

I feel like I am watching glory depart from a temple.

The word of the LORD came to me: “Son of man, with one blow I am about to take away from you the delight of your eyes…”
Say to the house of Israel, ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: I am about to desecrate my sanctuary–the stronghold in which you take pride, the delight of your eyes, the object of your affection.
Ezekiel 24:15-16, 21

Ezekiel bore the burden of this agonizing process twice over, both times helplessly watching the delight of his eyes being snuffed out. His wife’s premature death was more than a personal loss—it was a tangible enactment of the bigger story he was a part of. That story was one that he was chosen by God to witness and proclaim: the departure of God’s glory from His temple.

Now the glory of the God of Israel went up from above the cherubim, where it had been, and moved to the threshold of the temple.
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 9:3; 10:18-19

Carried up in a vision to see it happening, Ezekiel could hardly bear the sight of God’s Spirit leaving the Jerusalem temple. Like the worst kind of death, the fading glory of God’s presence lifting out of its physical dwelling tore at his heart, bereaving him of his most beautiful treasure. What had been a magnificent structure, befitting the glorious Spirit who filled it, was left behind to decay and crumble.

This is what the Sovereign LORD says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life.
I will put my sanctuary among them forever. My dwelling place will be with them; I will be their God, and they will be my people.
Ezekiel 37:5-6, 26-27

But in the midst of his overwhelming grief, Ezekiel was assured that both of these losses were a gruesome step in an otherwise glorious process. The Spirit would return; the glory would re-ignite. But it wouldn’t look the way it had before. The destruction of one beautiful structure was making room for another.

The glory of the replacement would far outshine the original.

"Christ Child" St. Martins-in-the-Fields Trafalgar Square, London
“Christ Child”
St. Martins-in-the-Fields
Trafalgar Square, London
This season we celebrate the return of God’s glory to its temple, the coming of His Spirit to a new physical dwelling. Expected and yet not, the birth of Jesus was the reunification of Spirit with body. The glory of heaven returned to earth. The fullness of God contained in one physical space. And yet it didn’t stop there.

The destruction of that temple gave rise to another. The desecration of that sanctuary sanctified another. The emptying of that body gave fullness to another.

This is the reality in which my friend is now participating. Body and soul, she is an integral part of that majestic dwelling, the earthly temple of the Heavenly Spirit. Her life on earth has been a glorious reflection of the Spirit in whose image she was created. The beauty of her face has mirrored the beauty of her spirit, full of joy, of love, of life.

Your beauty should not come from outward adornment… Instead, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight. For this is the way the holy women of the past who put their hope in God used to make themselves beautiful.
1 Peter 3:3-6

And now as her physical beauty fades, the beauty within shines all the more brightly. She has spent a lifetime gazing on the beauty of God, and the beauty of His Spirit has settled deep within hers. Even as her bodily temple is being destroyed, her truest beauty remains unscathed, radiant for all to see.

Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?

What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else.
The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power;

When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
1 Corinthians 6:19; 15:36-37, 42-43, 54

As much as it breaks my heart to hear of her suffering, to know of her slow, painful demise, I look forward through my tears to the end of her story. Her magnificent temple is crumbling, but it is making way for another. The beautiful form by which I have always recognized her will depart, but the spirit it has housed will one day return to its dwelling. I don’t know what that new version will look like, but I do know it will be even more gloriously beautiful than the old.

Death may win this day. But it will lose that one.

Unfading glory.

As we gaze on your kingly brightness
So our faces display your likeness
Ever changing from glory to glory
Mirrored here may our lives tell your story
Shine on me, shine on me

Graham Kendrick
Copyright © 1987 Make Way Music

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

10649978_10152339860566762_3613242299609473767_n

Editing Childhood

“What’s the point of going back? I don’t want to get stuck in the unpleasant memories of my childhood. I just want to get over it and move on.”

I sat across the picnic table from my friend and witnessed the conflict raging within her. Her mind wanted to be in charge, to determine what she thought about God and how she felt about herself. But her heart just wouldn’t cooperate. It kept sending her mixed messages: “God loves you. How could He? You are valuable to Him. Impossible! I’m unlovable, nothing but a worthless failure.”

As we picked together through the earliest memories of her life story, it became readily apparent to me where those messages were coming from. A terrified little girl, frantically attempting to sweep away the broken leftovers of her step-father’s drunken rage. A deeply impressionable child, consistently failing to prevent his destructive anger, forever falling short of being able to protect her mother from its violent effects. But try as she might, she couldn’t fix the problem. She couldn’t be good enough to pacify her step-father, couldn’t perform well enough to earn her mother’s love.

The scars of our past can become part of the beauty of our present.

Those messages of inadequacy and un-lovability were so deeply lodged in her soul that no amount of mental discipline or right theology had managed to root them out. But God was not content to leave them there. Just as He had done with countless others who came before her, He was taking her through the agonizing process of digging down through the layers of her life, unearthing the painful memories that she had kept carefully locked away and bringing her face-to-face with the damaging experiences that continued to define her.

Joseph named his firstborn Manasseh and said, “It is because God has made me forget all my trouble and all my father’s household.” The second son he named Ephraim and said, “It is because God has made me fruitful in the land of my suffering.”
Genesis 41:51-52

Joseph had been just as resistant to this process as my friend was. He didn’t want to remember his childhood, the constant insults of jealous brothers, the sick family dynamics of competing mothers and treacherous sibling relationships. How could he enjoy the memory of his father’s overt favoritism when it had only made things worse for him with his brothers? How had that love protected him in the end when their jealous rage cost him all but his life?

The one stable relationship that had carried him through his tumultuous childhood and trying adulthood was the one he still shared with the invisible God. God had heard the abusive messages that his brothers assailed him with and had countered them with His own dream-time messages of affirmation. God had seen the indignity of his slavery and had shown up to make him successful in all his work. God had felt the isolation of his imprisonment and had kept him company through his darkest days. And in an unprecedented turn of events, God had raised him up into a completely new life, complete with a new name, a new family, a new community, and a new job.

When Joseph’s brothers arrived, they bowed down to him with their faces to the ground. As soon as Joseph saw his brothers, he recognized them, but he pretended to be a stranger… Then he remembered his dreams about them and said to them, “You are spies! You have come to see where our land is unprotected.” …
They said to one another, “Surely we are being punished because of our brother. We saw how distressed he was when he pleaded with us for his life, but we would not listen; that’s why this distress has come upon us.” … They did not realize that Joseph could understand them, since he was using an interpreter. He turned away from them and began to weep…
Genesis 42:6-9, 21-24

Joseph had no desire to go back. But the one element of his past that he most wanted to avoid, God brought to meet him. Face-to-face with the brothers he had spent years trying to forget, the pent up emotions of his childhood came bursting forth. Under the layers of his power suit and prestigious position, his picture-perfect family and charmed social life, Joseph was still that traumatized little boy, desperate for his brothers’ acceptance, helpless in the face of their betrayal. The most successful man in Egypt broke down and wept.

Deeply moved at the sight of his brother, Joseph hurried out and looked for a place to weep. He went into his private room and wept there.
Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants, and he cried out, “Have everyone leave my presence!” So there was no one with Joseph when he made himself known to his brothers. And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard him…
Joseph had his chariot made ready and went to Goshen to meet his father Israel. As soon as Joseph appeared before him, he threw his arms around his father and wept for a long time.
Genesis 43:30; 45:1-2; 46:29

But Joseph’s tears were not an unproductive reversion. They were a healing stream, finally allowing the wounds of his past to be exposed, finally allowing the façade of his present to be made whole. He needed to hear his brothers’ confession, to see their distress over the pain they had caused him. He needed reassurance of his father’s love, evidence that the members of his family had learned to relate to each other in tenderness and compassion. Convinced at last that it was safe, Joseph was able to re-engage those relationships whose proximity had caused deep wounds, but whose absence left a deep hole.

Our tears are not an unproductive reversion. They are a healing stream, finally allowing the wounds of our past to be exposed, finally allowing the façade of our present to be made whole.

Sadly, not all of our painful memories find such happy resolution. My friend’s relationship with her mother continues to be characterized by criticism and rejection. But pulling back the curtains on her past has allowed her to see herself for who she really is: a child deeply loved by God, even in the midst of being horribly treated by her family. Even more, it has allowed her to experience her truest Father’s unconditional acceptance and adoring love in ways she never could before.

Damaging childhood memories cannot be erased. But revisited under the expert guidance of the Holy Counselor, the scars of our past can become part of the beauty of our present.