Tag Archives: spiritual disciplines

Waiting With Haste

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Adoration of the Christ Child by Matthias Stomer circa 1630

As I sit on our South Asian rooftop listening to birdsong and soaking in four years worth of sunshine, nothing feels urgent. Of course the usual piles of laundry, children’s schoolbooks, and student’s assignments await my attention, but up here my mind goes into neutral, simply drinking in the slow beauty of the moment.

But if I peel back a layer deeper into my soul, I confront within myself a practiced apathy, one which has crept unnoticed into my spirit through prolonged waiting on God. It’s not that I haven’t been seeing His hand at work in amazing ways (this latest move topping the cake), but there are desires near and dear to my heart which I haven’t yet seen Him meet. And though I can explain away why the timing might not yet be right and how He is using this period of waiting to do a deep work in me, the fact is that my soul grows weary of wanting.

I am worn out calling for help; my throat is parched. My eyes fail, looking for my God.
Psalm 69:2

In a self-protective measure, it slowly slips into not caring so much, both about the things God has withheld from me and the things with which He has already graciously filled my arms. Why can’t I engage life with the same level of anticipation and zeal that normally characterize me? Why do I find the immediate and the mundane so much more comfortable to focus on than the long term and the profound? If I’m honest, the answer lies somewhere between exhaustion and fear.

From this position, I feel a growing awe over the persevering faith that so many of the saints of old sustained through a lifetime of waiting. Didn’t Abraham get tired of moving around, waiting for the child and the land that God had promised him? Didn’t Moses ever feel like staying in his bedroll and watching the ancient near-eastern equivalent of Netflix instead of getting up each day only to discover that the cloud wasn’t drifting towards the promised land yet?

There was also a prophet, Anna, the daughter of Penuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, and then was a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying.
Luke 2:36-37

But the hero of the faith whose story really resonates with me this morning is Anna. Unlike Simeon, it doesn’t seem that she had really been promised anything specific by God. She had no angelic revelation or Spirit-defined expectation that God had promised to fulfill for her, and yet clearly she was anticipating something. Why else would she live a life of such intense self-denial and focused preparation?

So I counsel younger widows to marry, to have children, to manage their homes and to give the enemy no opportunity for slander.
1 Timothy 4:14

It wasn’t exactly the social norm of her day for young, childless widows to renounce the comforts of home and the hope of a family in order to dedicate themselves to temple service. In fact Paul would later encourage women in her position to remarry and live the domestic dream. But something compelled Anna to passionately pursue a very different sort of vision, whether or not the means were socially acceptable or the goal guaranteed.

There was something that she wanted so much that she was willing to give up food, sleep, and her very self in order to pursue. And sixty years later, she was still at it night and day. Hadn’t anyone introduced this old woman to the idea of retirement, to a realistic resetting of her expectations, or even to the importance of diversified interests and hobbies? Didn’t she ever wonder why she worked so hard to keep herself continuously in the Lord’s presence when she had so little to show for it?

And yet this humble servant of the Lord simply refused to stop getting up each day and doing it all over again. I have to believe that, as a frail human, her flesh grew weak and her soul grew weary. But God’s presence was not only the goal towards which she strained, it was also the power that fueled her flame.

Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.
Luke 2:38

Anna’s major contribution to redemptive history comes almost as an accidental side-product of her daily lifestyle. Walking through the temple courts in a state of constant communion with the Spirit, she “chanced” upon a young couple bringing their baby in for the standard procedures. What to a human eye would have looked like more of the same, the Spirit enabled her to see the eternal significance of. Had she not spent a lifetime practicing for and anticipating this moment, she might just have missed it.

Instead, this holy woman raised her voice to confirm the identity of Jesus and to preach about Him to all those who were gathered in the temple, eagerly anticipating the redemption for which they had been waiting for millenia. Anna’s refusal to give in to external pressures or to internal exhaustion landed her this special role in God’s Kingdom story.

And so as I falter in my faith, wanting to keep expecting great things from God but weary from waiting for them, I raise my eyes to this member of that great host of witnesses who have gone before me. I have no guarantee of what God will do through my persevering faith, but I trust that this spark of desire that His Spirit continues to fan within me will one day spring into flame. And in the meantime, I will get up each day to stoke my soul’s anticipation all over again.

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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.

The Suffering Credential

IMG_0307I’m sitting alone in an urbane, international airport, but my mind is still with the rural, northern Nigerian pastors whom I’ve been with all week. Something about these men—their lives, their testimony, and the zeal with which they serve God despite all the odds—commands my respect.

Ironically, one of the themes of our time together was the role of suffering in the life of a believer and, in particular, in the life of a minister. I felt grossly inadequate teaching this particular audience about the spiritually developmental benefits of suffering. Unlike when I present this message to a western Christian audience, my point became less of an exhortation to embrace suffering and more of an affirmation to those who already have. These pastors face the daily threat of their daughters being kidnapped as prize-brides for Muslim men and of their newly converted church members being assaulted or killed by their former communities. Diocesan meetings often concern how they can hide their at-risk daughters or members in each others’ homes as they bear together their heavy financial and safety risks.

Pastor's children enjoying their meal together during our conference.
Pastor’s children enjoying their meal together during our conference.
My affirmation fell on parched soil. Compared to their colleagues in the widely popular prosperity churches (who generally avoid rural, predominantly Muslim areas for their ministry contexts), these humble servants of God feel like losers. Their trousers are ripped from repeated attempts to kick-start their decrepit motor bikes, their wives have to make soap and sell whatever they can to keep food in the childrens’ mouths, and their success rates in church growth have hardly put them on the map.

But I couldn’t help mentally making the comparison between these African church leaders and their Western colleagues, too. They lack the academic credentialing and rigorous theological training that the Western church values as a fundamental qualifier for pastoral ministry. This is not to say their hunger for further knowledge is lacking (it’s anything but), but rather that opportunities to acquire it are rare prizes. And yet their opportunities abound for acquiring a very different sort of ministry credential.

Then the Jews demanded of him, “What miraculous sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?”
Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.”
…the temple he had spoken of was his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the Scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken.
John 2:18-22

When questioned by the Jews about His own ministry credentials, Jesus pointed to His upcoming suffering. He could have bragged about His personal line with the Father or performed a few exciting miracles. But instead He pointed to the greatest miracle of all: His willingness to suffer for a cause that He valued more than His life. Of course the capstone of that miracle was the fact that He would rise from His suffering, but without death there would be no resurrection.

We put no stumbling block in anyone’s path, so that our ministry will not be discredited. Rather, as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: in great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses; in beatings, imprisonments and riots; in hard work, sleepless nights and hunger; in purity, understanding, patience and kindness; in the Holy Spirit and in sincere love; in truthful speech and in the power of God…
2 Corinthians 6:3-7

Paul, too, defended the credibility of his ministry by pointing to his own suffering. The validation of his right to speak so authoritatively was how much he had endured for the sake of his message. Yes, the message was truth whether or not its bearer had been persecuted for it, but the proof of its worth and the depth of his ability to deliver it were forged in the fires of suffering. This minister was able to comfort because he had been comforted. He had the right to call others to persevere under severe trials because he had already done the same. The knowledge of his book learning had taken on a third dimension of messy life experience, and that became his leading credential.

As I consider the massive gap between the church in the West and the church in Africa, I think we have much to offer each other. I’m delighted to be a small part of bringing some of our training in Biblical knowledge and study skills to the Global South, as a number of other Western groups and churches are doing. But I think we also need a good dose of what our African and Asian contemporaries have to offer. Their suffering has earned them a right to be listened to and respected. It has also given them insights into God and His Word that we cannot see until we share similar experiences.

We may have more educational credentials. But they far outrank us in the suffering credential. Perhaps we would do well to request their help in our area of need.

God on the Rocks

IMG_8908Last week’s travels brought me up close and personal with some seriously spiritual rocks.

Stonehenge has long held a fascination for me and for my husband, especially in recent years as he has been researching the significance of cosmological alignment in the New Testament writings of Paul. We wondered if we would sense the spiritually charged atmosphere there that led people of ancient times to carefully erect these massive stones into their set pattern of alignment with the stars. Though this ancient site is internationally renowned as a sacred portal between heaven and earth, I found myself as spiritually impressed by the stones as were the flock of sheep that stood nearby grazing impassively.

IMG_8967In a similar but different vein, the island of Iona is a place we had long dreamed of visiting. Pilgrims still flock from around the world to visit this sacred site from which Columba introduced Christianity to Scotland, the Book of Kells was created, and generations of priests and kings were nurtured. I expected to be deeply moved by walking near stone high crosses that have been pointing pilgrim’s eyes heavenward for almost 1,000 years and by worshipping in the stone abbey where countless generations of saints have experienced close encounters with God. But as much as I enjoyed visiting these historic stones, they were just that for me: places of reminder, places of the past, but not places that aroused my soul or brought a closer connection between my spirit and God’s.

I have plenty of room in my theology for sacred places and sacred stones.

We meet God at the rocks because that’s where we cry out for help.

Abraham repeatedly set up altars at the sites where he experienced the presence of God’s Spirit in powerful ways. These stones marked the sacred spots where he and his descendants after him would be able to return and encounter God anew. Who could have foreseen that the most seemingly random of these wilderness sites, where he almost sacrificed his son Isaac, would end up becoming the temple mount of Jerusalem over 1,000 years later?

When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, “Surely the LORD is in this place, and I was not aware of it.” He was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.” Early the next morning Jacob took the stone he had placed under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on top of it.
Genesis 28:16-18

Jacob recognized the significance of the stone he had randomly selected as a travel pillow during his flight from his homicidal brother. One night’s sleep on it revealed to him a ladder-like portal between heaven and earth. Angels running up and downstairs to intervene in the world of desperate mortals? No wonder he named it Bethel and erected it as a standing monument to mark such a sacred space, one that he would be sure to return to for further help and direction.

He cried out to the LORD on Israel’s behalf, and the LORD answered him. …
Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Shen. He named it Ebenezer, saying, “Thus far has the LORD helped us.”
1 Samuel 7:9-12

And Samuel erected his Ebenezer stone as a standing reminder of God’s spiritual presence and tangible intervention at a particular point of need.

People have been meeting God at the rocks for as long as we have felt our need for help, for external intervention from a source that is greater than we are.

And the case is no less true for me.

“On the rocks” spirituality gets expressed in desperate invocations and terrified litanies.

Although the rocks I travelled miles to see did not do it for me, the rocks that I encountered later that night in Iona did. Taking advantage of the extended twilight of a summer’s evening in the far reaches of the North Atlantic, I grabbed my trainers and set out for an exploratory run around the island. Ethereal Celtic hymns floating through my earbuds matched the ancient beauty of the rocks, the sea, and the last traces of a spectacular sunset. Low tides and uninhabited tracts of stunningly rugged land allowed me to run along unhindered as I ambitiously attempted to circle the entire island.

I love you, O LORD, my strength. The LORD is my rock…

In my distress I called to the LORD; I cried to my God for help. From his temple he heard my voice; my cry came before him, into his ears.

He reached down from on high and took hold of me; he drew me out of deep waters. …He brought me out into a spacious place; he rescued me because he delighted in me.

For who is God besides the LORD? And who is the Rock except our God? …He makes my feet like the feet of a deer; he enables me to stand on the heights.

…you stoop down to make me great. You broaden the path beneath me, so that my ankles do not turn.

The LORD lives! Praise be to my Rock! Exalted be God my Savior!
Psalm 18:1-2, 6, 16-19, 31-33, 35-36, 46

But what a precautionary glance at a map would have shown me was the precipitous rock mass that I would encounter three quarters of the way around the island. At first I took it as one more delightful obstacle to clamber over, but as the summit of each ridge only provided a view of another steeper, rockier one, my heart began to sink. Darkness was setting in fast and I was alone on what now felt to be dangerous, unfamiliar terrain. I kept pressing on, hoping that the next rise would reveal the familiar grassy slope where my family were snuggled up inside the warmth of our white-washed B&B, oblivious to my predicament. But the reality finally dawned that I was stuck: too dark and steep to go forward, too late to make it back the way I had come. Panic stricken, I cried aloud to God to help me as I turned back, scrambling over sharp rocks and running recklessly through peaty bogs. The floating, peaceful lyrics no longer fit the moment: my spirituality was one of desperate invocations and terrified litanies.

In God’s kindness, He brought me back to flat land before dark, to the cottage before I could no longer see my way. But that night the rocks of Iona, the ones on the other end of the isle from the high crosses and sacred abbey, became for me sacred rocks, because there I encountered God.

Whether in the rocks of history or on the rocks of life, God is most present when we are most needy.

Meet Him at the rocks.

Breathe.

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iphone wallpaper
Burn out. Exhaustion. Stress.

I remember as a teacher in inner-city middle schools having to remind my slightly hormonal, emotionally out-of-control students to stop and breathe. Somehow the extra oxygen to the brain was just what they needed to refocus and regain control.

Some days I need the same reminder: stop, take a deep breath, focus, let it out.

But more than oxygen, my soul craves the life-giving breathe of the Spirit.

How can I keep breathing out life into others if I am not regularly breathing in life from God?

Sometimes the burdens of life, the non-stop demands that pile up into days and weeks start to squeeze the life out of me. I look for reprieve, but as soon as I manage to carve out a little space some other urgent responsibility pushes in. And no wonder! The lifestyle that Jesus calls us to is impossibly intense.

Take every thought captive. Pray without ceasing. Bear each others’ burdens. Share with those in need. Entertain strangers. Visit the sick. Feed the poor. Work. Teach. Serve. Proclaim. Disciple. Listen. Weep. Rejoice.

If I am to take this impossibly great commission seriously, I am going to need a lot of help. And that’s just the point. I need the Holy Helper.

Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.
…the LORD God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.
Genesis 1:2, 2:7

When you hide your face, they are terrified; when you take away their breath, they die and return to the dust. When you send your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the earth.
Psalm 104:29-30

He is the One who hovered over the face of the dark, unruly waters in the beginning, bringing order out of chaos and beauty out of emptiness. He is the Air that God breathed into the lungs of the first man, pouring life into dust. And He is the renewing force that restores worn-out souls, that reinvigorates exhausted minds, that reignites burnt-out bodies.

Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.
John 20:21-22

Of course Jesus knew we couldn’t manage carrying this workload on our own. And He never intended us to. Along with a commission He gave us His Spirit to do the job with us, or more accurately, to do the job through us. But as much as I may theologically acknowledge the Holy Spirit’s existence, I too often fail to live as if it is true. So no wonder I end up where I am now: worn, spent, and running on empty.

I need to stop and breathe.

Such an intimate relationship motivates me
to live up to my calling.
Such a high calling makes me desperate
for more of the Spirit.

I need to open my spirit to His presence, to clear some space in my “get-‘er-done” mind for Him to have room to work. How can I keep breathing out life into others if I am not regularly breathing in life from Him?

I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being…
Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.
Ephesians 3:16; 4:3

The Holy Spirit may be omnipresent and omnipotent, but His power at work in me is not automatic. Like any relationship, it needs to be cultivated and developed, given the time and space to grow up in me. I can’t fake its fruit. I can’t force its results. But apart from an intentional, ongoing connection with the Holy Spirit, I know that my spirit will shrivel and die.

So what does it look like to be in a relationship with the Spirit?

And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.
Ephesians 4:30

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. …Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.
Galatians 5:22-25

I suppose it’s not too different from nurturing any close relationship, only in this one co-dependency is a good thing. If we want to be close to Him, we have to pay careful attention to His gentle promptings, allowing Him to adapt our preferences, opinions, and habits to His. We will do whatever it takes to avoid grieving Him, which primarily entails not shutting Him out of any area of our lives. Far from perpetuating a performance mentality, seeking to please the Spirit means laying down our over-weaning sense of responsibility and letting Him take the controls.

Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit. …Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Ephesians 5:18-20

And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.
Philippians 3:21

And this is what I love about Him. He doesn’t take over in some degrading, depersonalizing sort of way. He doesn’t make us His insignificant sycophants nor does He use us merely for His own self-centered purposes. Instead He pours His infinite Spirit into our mortal frames, making us more gloriously human than we ever were before. His Spirit interacts with our personalities to create a perfect spark, a renewing, creative force that sends us back out into the world to create as He creates, to beautify as He beautifies, and to love as He loves.

Such an intimate relationship motivates me to live up to my calling.
Such a high calling makes me desperate for more of the Spirit.

Breathe.

Closer than You Think

Jesus_ascending_to_heavenWhere is God right now, anyway?

The atheist laughs at the question; the agnostic shrugs it off as irrelevant; but the struggling Christian grasps for an answer.

Her cries of “Forsaken?!” erupt from experiences that seem to deny the presence of a loving, protecting God.

His cries of “Abandoned?!” flow from deep disappointment over the ways God has not responded to prayer, has not intervened in a seriously messed-up situation.

Does God even hear? Is heaven so far away that it takes an earthquake or a massacre to get His attention?

Blessed are those who have learned to acclaim you, who walk in the light of your presence, O LORD. …For you are their glory and strength, and by your favor you exalt our horn.

How long, O LORD? Will you hide yourself forever? How long will your wrath burn like fire? Remember how fleeting is my life. For what futility you have created all men! …O Lord, where is your former great love?
Psalm 89:15-17, 46-49

The Psalms seem to resonate with schizophrenic prayers of people grappling with messy earthly realities in the face of a pristinely perfect heaven. At one moment they can celebrate and affirm the tangible, even visible presence of God on earth, intervening and making things right. But the next verse over, they are calling out in disillusionment, feeling like God has slammed the gates of heaven and no longer hears or cares.

“As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
Isaiah 55:9

Sometimes the gap between heaven and earth seems infinite.

But is it really?

The great wonder of Christ’s incarnation was that, for a season, heaven came to earth. What a great relief to actually get to see God walking around with hands and feet, facial expressions and audible words! No more of this guess work, trying to figure out where God is and what He is doing—the woman about to be stoned heard Him absolve her, the father of a dead child saw Him bring her back.

Sometimes the gap between heaven
and earth seems insurmountable.

But what about when those painfully short years ended? When Christ ascended from the earth and sat down at the right hand of the Father, did the doors of heaven shut behind Him?

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.” After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.
Acts 1:8-9

Thankfully not. Jesus blazed a path between the two realms, transversing the short distance with His physical body in tow. Rather than ditch it on the way up, he took a bit of earth along with Him as a keepsake from His visit, a memento of His return. And He left with the promise that He would soon send a bit of heaven down to earth.

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 2:1-4

And thankfully, Jesus didn’t keep us waiting too long. A little over a week later He made good on His promise. A package arrived from heaven, not in the tiny, earthy form of another baby, but rather resembling the sort of phenomenon we would expect when a heavenly Being lands on earth: violent winds swooping from heaven, eerie flames dancing overhead, and gloriously strange manifestations in those with whom it came in contact.

Glimpses of heaven are all around us.

As inspiring as it is to rehearse these 2,000 year-old stories, it can still feel like heaven is impossibly far away. Why don’t we get to chat with angels reassuring us that Jesus will come back the same way He left? Why can’t we see the Spirit flame spreading and alighting around us as we trudge through days of frustrated labor and nights of unconsoled tears?

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
Matt. 28:18-20

But if we take off our “It is only real if I can see it” glasses, glimpses of heaven are all around us. Each time the fruit of the Spirit manifests itself in us, God has broken through. Love? Peace? Patience? I know those aren’t native to my fleshly self. Repentance? Faith? Transformation? I witness the miracle of His powerful intervention in the most unexpected situations. And then of course there are those jaw-dropping evidences of God at work in the world when justice is served, when healing happens, when captives are set free.

…I will go on to visions and revelations from the Lord. I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know–God knows. And I know that this man–whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows– was caught up to paradise. He heard inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell.
2 Corinthians 12:1-4

Through all that, I am learning to see the very present interface between the heavenly realm and the earthly one, the one existing just above the other with constant interaction between the two. As a friend of mine recently said, it is as if a veil hangs over us, hiding the heavenly realm from our earthly eyes. Sometimes that veil gets momentarily lifted, like when Stephen was granted a glimpse of glory just before his death or when the apostles and prophets were shown the heavenly realities going on behind earthly events. And to be honest there have been times in my own life when the veil has been particularly thin or even, for a brief but breathtaking second, lifted.

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.
For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. …Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face.
1 Corinthians 13:1, 9-12

More often than not, though, heaven remains an invisible reality, perceived only through eyes of faith. I cherish those memories of when it has been less so, replaying them in my mind when my faith wavers and my current struggles cause them to grow dim. I actively pursue the fruit of God’s Spirit and the great commission through which He is bringing heaven down to earth. And I long for the day when the clouds will roll back, allowing us to gaze with unveiled faces on the heavenly reality we have been participating in all along.

It’s a lot closer than we think.

Antidote for a Servaholic

IMG_8717

Every once in a while I need to stop and take an upside-down theological exam. I’m not talking about a written checklist or statement of faith. I mean the sort of life evaluation in which I check my principles by my practice. How does my lifestyle betray what I truly believe?

If I am brutally honest with myself, I have to admit that I’m a servaholic. I find my kudos in working hard in service to God. I eat, sleep, work, and pray the Kingdom, finding it difficult to rest until it has come on earth as it is in Heaven. Who would fault me for that? And yet when I examine the assumptions that drive much of what I do, I see how very off I am in my understanding of what God wants of me.

I feel more comfortable waiting tables at the party than chilling out with the guests.

I am surprised to discover it of myself, but I am the older brother in the parable of the Prodigal Son. I don’t resent all those younger brothers who have taken God for granted and have blown their time and resources on pursuing worldly pleasure. I know well enough that those pleasures would never satisfy me and I am delighted when they come back to the Father whom I love and serve.

“The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends.
Luke 15:28-29

The older brother and I share a different problem. We are afflicted with a faulty perception of ourselves and of the Father whom we serve. Without realizing it, we keep turning ourselves into His slaves instead of His sons. We singlehandedly shoulder the burden of all that needs to be done for Him, unintentionally stiff-arming Him from sharing it with us. We wear ourselves out doing for Him what He never intended us to carry alone. No wonder His yoke seems demanding and His burden anything but light.

I run into this the most when I try to stop and have fun. I can’t. I don’t know how to. I know how to work. I have learned how to weep with those who weep. But in a world of unmitigated suffering and unfinished tasks, I am at a loss when it comes time to party with those who rejoice.

As a slave I may surrender my body,
but as a son I surrender my heart.

So when my Father invites me in to celebrate with Him, I balk outside the party. Like Martha, I feel more comfortable waiting tables at the party than chilling out with the guests. But that is not where He is content to leave me.

” ‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ ”
Luke 15:31-32

God doesn’t want me as His slave. That’s not why He adopted me. What pleases Him is not my productivity nor my righteous rule-keeping. It is my sharing with Him all that He has and all that He is. He is not a rigid task-master, smiling only after the full harvest of the kingdom has been brought in. He is my Father, inviting me to run into His arms and be a part of His happiness just as all the younger brothers are.

Because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “”Abba”, Father.” So you are no longer a slave, but a son; and since you are a son, God has made you also an heir.

…But now that you know God–or rather are known by God–how is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable principles? Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again?
Galatians 4:6-9

A part of me still hesitates. What if I get so relaxed in simply enjoying my Father’s party that I become lazy and presumptuous? Don’t I need some controls to keep me on task in the work He has given me to do?

But when I examine my hang-ups a little closer, I realize that they all have to do with control. As a slave I may surrender my body, but as a son I will have to surrender my heart. God is raising the stakes on our relationship. Can I trust His Spirit to govern me from within or will I still insist on my own rigid self-management?

Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?
Galatians 3:3

O foolish child that I am! Why would I want to remain in this exhausting, never-ending servitude? Why would I resist the invitation to come in and enjoy the good things my Father wants to share with me?

“But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. … When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing.
Luke 15:22-25

So what is the prescription for a recovering servaholic? I think I need to observe 40 days of anti-Lent, a season in which I practice a daily dose of pleasure. The point is not to try to have fun apart from the Father, a mistake which both younger and older brothers tend to make. Rather I want to daily set aside time, resources, and space to enjoy something with God.

God liberates His servaholic child
with an invitation to celebration.

Good-looking clothes. Delicious food. Beautiful music. Frivolous dancing. These are the things that the Father prescribed for both of his wayward sons.

Frolics in the sunshine. Lazy moments of lying around. Extra cream in my coffee. Reading a book just for the fun of it. This is the sort of celebration that He is inviting me into, as well.

Who knew pleasure could be a spiritual discipline?

A Place for Pleasure

IMG_8283A post on pleasure in the middle of Lent? The irony has not escaped me. And yet as my husband has astutely pointed out, the very messiness of theology done at the crux of kingdom coming and kingdom come demands a degree of irony. Sweetness in the midst of sorrow. Pleasure in the midst of pain.

For years I have only valued these conflicting experiences the other way around. My mind would resonate in agreement with Wesley’s pithy statement to his Princess Bride: “Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says otherwise is selling something.” Moments of mirth or passing pleasures seemed to me just that: temporary, trivial experiences that had little value in the overall picture of things.

But in His perfect irony, God has chosen this season of Lent to be the time in which He is calling me to make space for pleasure in my life.

The very messiness of theology done at the
crux of kingdom coming and kingdom come
demands a degree of irony.

Since childhood I have been trained in hard work, self-discipline, and kingdom living. As a young adult, I was profoundly influenced by John Piper’s analogy of adopting a war-time mentality in prioritizing my time, efforts, and resources for the work of God’s kingdom. But because my understanding of that kingdom was largely limited to the heavenly realm, I was left with little cause to invest in earthly pleasures. An expensive dinner out with my husband. An indulgent pamper-treatment at home on my own. None of these seemed worth the time or expense in light of eternity.

Praise the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits–…who satisfies your desires with good things so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.
Psalm 103:2, 5

But God has been showing me that pleasure is not just bookended on the front and back end of eternity. He did not put it on a cosmic hold once the perfection of the Garden was broken. And He is not waiting for the golden streets of Heaven to finally roll it back out as a godly part of our experience.

He makes …plants for man to cultivate– bringing forth food from the earth: wine that gladdens the heart of man, oil to make his face shine, and bread that sustains his heart.
When you give it to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are satisfied with good things.
Psalm 104:14-15, 28

Pleasure is a part of God’s plan for the here and now, even if it is intermixed with tears and toil. He has created in us desires that He then delights in satisfying. He weaves pleasure into the fabric of our everyday lives: food that is intended to taste good, wine that is meant to make us feel giddy, faces that are designed to look beautiful, and sensory experiences that are supposed to make us stop in our tracks out of sheer ecstasy.

So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
Matthew 6:31-33

Obviously God has much to say about not making a god out of earthly pleasures by overly indulging in or pursuing them before Him. But that does not negate their value in His estimation. If anything, His promise to add all these things to us when we seek first His kingdom reinforces the importance of their place in our lives. He gives us beautiful clothes and delicious food along with His kingdom and His righteousness.

But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you know nothing about.” …”My food,” said Jesus, “is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work. John 4:32-34
Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ ” Matthew 4:4
“The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and “sinners.” ‘
Matthew 11:19

Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in the example of Jesus. He was all about the kingdom: eating, sleeping, and preaching it day and night. He certainly wasn’t overly attached to creature comforts, voluntarily going without them for long periods of time in His pursuit of God. And yet He also had quite a reputation for enjoying Himself at parties.

While Jesus was in Bethany in the home of a man known as Simon the Leper, a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, which she poured on his head as he was reclining at the table.
Matthew 26:6-7

Even in the midst of the intensity and passion of holy week, Jesus made space for pleasure. In between passionate temple cleansings and intensive final instructions, He found the time to hang out at a banquet table, savoring fine food and wine with His friends. He didn’t get the meal to go. And He didn’t rush the perfumed head and foot massage that came with it. He simply enjoyed it as a gift from God.

Whether I eat or fast, party or abstain,
I do it all as an act of worship.

And that is the point. Physical pleasure is a gift from God. Far from being a distraction from God, it is meant to be enjoyed with God. My stripped down, productivity-driven lifestyle may make more room for ministry, but it has crowded out the ability to enjoy God and His good gifts. I need to take a lesson from Jesus, knowing when to push through hardship and when to stop for pleasure.

If I take part in the meal with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of something I thank God for? So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.
I Corinthians 10:30-31

So even in the midst of Lent’s austerity, God is punctuating my sobriety with mirth, my fasts with indulgence, and my focus with frivolity. While it all seems a bit unorthodox, I am finding great pleasure in enjoying both ends of the spectrum in His presence. Whether I eat or fast, party or abstain, I do it all as an act of worship.

God’s pleasure is my own. My pleasure is His.

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.

Against Mere Spirituality

"Hiding the light from the dark” Robert Bainbridge http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/in-pictures-14646794
“Hiding the light from the dark”
Robert Bainbridge
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/in-pictures-14646794
Silence. Solitude. Meditation. Prayer.

Sunday morning’s sermon should have resonated with my Spiritual Formation soul. After all, this is the subject I teach. Henri Nouwen, John of the Cross, Bernard of Clairvaux: they were all there, their famous quotes beautifully interwoven into the tapestry of the message. And yet the longer I listened, the more disturbed my spirit became within me. Something was seriously missing.

And then I realized: it was God.

That seemed so preposterous that I went back to listening, searching for Him between the fibers of the sermon. How can we talk about spirituality without the Spirit? But sadly this isn’t the first time I have encountered the puzzle of isolationist spirituality.

Spirituality itself has been a missing component in much of modern thought. Our dualistic splitting of body and spirit, natural and supernatural, and even secular and sacred have forced us to chose which we will focus on at any given time.

Rather than resist this philosophic intrusion, the church has capitulated to it, allowing our sphere of influence to be relegated to the realm of the spiritual. Full stop. We sing. We pray. We exhort. We encourage. But at the end of the service, the only thing we carry away is a soul that has been strengthened to hold on for another week as it waits to be evacuated to heaven, hopefully taking a few others along with it.

Our relegation of the physical sphere, however, has resulted in a spiritually bankrupt society, governed by a secularism that leaves no oxygen for the soul. And a new generation of spiritually starved souls has gone looking to end their hunger.

So why aren’t they finding God?

Because we left Him behind at church and in our prayer closets, safely tucked away in His tidy box where He won’t threaten our economic interests, our time restrictions, our professional interactions, or our safe, convenient lifestyles.

But that sort of split-spirituality won’t cut it. And our indictment is found in the words postmoderns use to describe what they are searching for:

Authentic. Radical. Embodied. Real.

You, however, are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you. … And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you.
Romans 8:9-11

If those words described our spirituality, then wouldn’t they find God among us? If we were actively integrating our faith into our physical lives, embodying Christ in our care for all of creation (spiritual, social, physical, and global), then wouldn’t those seekers flock to us?

Instead they have been left to create their own form of spirituality, one which lacks the Spirit we claim to be full of. And so we get messages like the one I heard Sunday morning. Though it held out an appeal to pursue the “dangerous, radical adventure of a spiritual life,” it made no waves in a university chapel setting which was oriented for people “of all faiths or no faith at all,” because at bottom it didn’t challenge a secular paradigm. It didn’t call people to God; it only called them to leave behind the noise of the world and to get in touch with their deeper, truer selves.

And this is where I see a shocking similarity between secular spirituality, eastern spirituality, and much of historic Christian spirituality. It is predicated on the pursuit of our own spirits, of seeking to transcend the physical realm that we assume holds us back from the full realization of who were are as spiritual beings. So saints and mystics, monks and disciples of all stripe and religion end up pursuing the same path.

Silence. Solitude. Meditation. Prayer.

All of these are disciplines which I advocate in my classes as core to the Christian life, but always with the understanding of their purpose. These are practices that nurture the communion between God’s Spirit and ours, building a bond between us that forms the basis for all the rest of life. But true spirituality always erupts in transformed living.

The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. …in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.
Romans 8:19-23

God’s Spirit is too penetrating to stay locked in a monastic cell, too powerful to remain safely contained in our hearts. He moves through every layer of our being, bringing it in conformity to His glorious image. And He manifests Himself through our physical bodies, working radical redemption in the world around us as we use them to tend His global garden.

Mere spirituality calls us in to our private selves.

Real spirituality calls us out into the public mess.