Tag Archives: spiritual formation

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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The Infertility Gospel

Again, Lord?

My heart breaks each time I hear news of a couple losing another unborn child. One loss is enough, but as the death toll rises, grief stacks on grief until hope reaches its breaking point.

To the woman he said, “I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with painful labor you will give birth to children.
Genesis 3:16

What happened to the promise you made to our first parents? I know that sin didn’t make childbearing easy, but you set our hopes on the fact that we would eventually succeed. After all, isn’t fruitfulness what you created us for?

So God created mankind in his own image… God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.
Genesis 1:28

Through the praise of children and infants you have established a stronghold against your enemies, to silence the foe and the avenger.
Psalm 8:2

For Christian men and women, the desire to have children is so much more than just starry-eyed dreams of tiny toes and baby announcements. It is the fulfillment of our God-given commission to reproduce little images of ourselves, to love and nurture them as He does us, and to fill the earth with their serving hands and worshiping voices. Our bodies and our hearts long for this like a sculptor’s fingers long for a bit of clay or a writer longs for pen and paper.

So when we give childbearing our best shot, when we once more risk the pain of failure or loss, what are we to think when God doesn’t bless us with a living child? What hope can we cling to for the woman whose womb won’t carry or for the couple who simply can’t conceive?

This is the passage of Scripture the eunuch was reading: “He was led like a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb before its shearer is silent, so he did not open his mouth. In his humiliation he was deprived of justice. Who can speak of his descendants? For his life was taken from the earth.”

The eunuch asked Philip, “Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?” Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus.
Acts 8:33-35

Strangely, I think this is exactly the issue the Ethiopian eunuch was wrestling with as he pored over Isaiah’s words on the road out of Jerusalem. In them he found a kindred spirit—another Servant whose “life” had been humiliatingly cut off and who found Himself without the honor or joy of offspring. And yet this Man’s story didn’t dead end there. If there was hope for Him, perhaps there was also a way forward for this infertile man.

And somehow the good news about Jesus that Philip was able to explain to the eunuch satisfied that quest. Was the good news simply that Jesus had died to take away his sins, or is there something in the gospel that also addressed the pain and disgrace of his infertility?

…and though the LORD makes his life an offering for sin, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the LORD will prosper in his hand. After he has suffered, he will see the light of life and be satisfied; by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities. Therefore I will give him a portion among the great…
Isaiah 53:10-12

Looking further in the passage he had been reading, the answer begins to dawn. After the anguish of His suffering and the dark night of the grave, the Servant would somehow find Himself with more children than any one body could produce. Because of His self-sacrificing investment in the lives of many, He would be honored among the great patriarchs who normally only achieved that status through their impressive numbers of children.

As Jesus was saying these things, a woman in the crowd called out, “Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you.” He replied, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.”
Luke 11:27-28

The good news about infertility is that, in Christ, family and childbearing have been redefined. Mothers and brothers are now those who have been brought near through His blood and who share in the work of nurturing and teaching the rest of God’s children. Fathers are those who mentor and shape those who are younger in the faith (or not yet in the faith.) And children are those whom we have the pleasure of watching as they grow in faith and fruitbearing.

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus… To Timothy my true son in the faith…
1 Timothy 1:2
Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord, and his mother, who has been a mother to me, too.
Romans 16:13

Yes, our hearts and our bodies still long to produce biological children to hold and to love. And of course we ache and grieve when we are unable to do so. But that is not the only way to go about fulfilling our created purpose. The joy of all believers, both those with and without babies of their own, is that the Great Commission redefines the Creation Mandate. We get to spread our tents wider than we could have ever imagined, loving children that were not born to us and investing ourselves in the nurture of people with whom we would not otherwise have shared a bond.

“Sing, barren woman, you who never bore a child; burst into song, shout for joy, you who were never in labor; because more are the children of the desolate woman than of her who has a husband,” says the LORD. “Enlarge the place of your tent, stretch your tent curtains wide, do not hold back…
Isaiah 54:1-2

I have witnessed this joy in the face of the Nigerian man who told me that though none of his biological children are still living, he is the father of more children than he can count (including three of the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram whom he took in after their rescue). I feel this joy as God brings to me exponentially more spiritual children to counsel and mentor than the four unborn children I lost. And I cling to this joy for the sake of those whose wombs are bare and whose cradles remain empty.

The gospel for the eunuch is the good news for you. In God’s family, you can have more kids than the rest of us.

Warts and All: On Why I Love the Church

853664e3b6e531ef7a9fc711013888ddI hear a growing chorus of frustration with Christianity and the “the church.” It pops up in blog posts, surfaces in individual conversations, and seeps through the cracks of our decaying religious moral. And for the most part, I would add my voice to the critiques.

Sadly, the church rarely lives up to its noble calling. In far too many cases truth has been wielded with all the tenderness of a baseball bat, authority structures have abused and suppressed the very sheep they were entrusted to nurture and empower, and programs, systems, and corporate culture have squeezed the very soul out of those who come seeking God.

Denying the church’s flaws isn’t helpful. But neither is dismissing it because of them.

I have seen (and smelled) the underbelly of too many Christian organizations and churches to be naïve to the painful realities involved in any human community. There isn’t a group that I have been part of that doesn’t have its casualties. At this point I’m not sure any story of Christian abuse, neglect, insensitivity, or betrayal can shock me. My own experiences have trained me in just how damaging the church can be.

Denying the church’s flaws isn’t helpful. But neither is dismissing it because of them.

An ecclesiology which sees the church primarily as a filling station for our individual spirituality will lead us to easily and quickly quit on it when it does not scratch where we itch. We have bought in to a consumerist paradigm which uses marketing strategies to grow churches and business models to run them. No wonder we are inclined to take our business elsewhere when their services no longer suit us!

Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
Ephesians 4:2-6

But despite all its toxic boils and cancerous perversions, the church is still the Church. It is the body of Christ, the family of our Heavenly Father. That’s not just a nice metaphor designed to give us all a warm fuzzy at the end of a special service. It’s the reality that the Trinity set in motion when the Father sacrificed His Firstborn to bring many more sons and daughters into the family. It’s the reality that we breathe in and out as we enjoy the benefits of the Spirit’s presence with each of us.

For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.

But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.
I Corinthians 12:13-14, 24-27

God doesn’t offer us individual package deals. As much as we like to think about how much He loves each of us as His special child, the implications of that relationship are that we are now stuck with each other as a family. More than that, we are actually one huge, living organism, bound together by the same life-giving Spirit and topped off with the same life-directing Head. No one of us can belong to God without belonging to the others. No one of us can quit on the rest without also quitting on God (and ourselves, while we are at it).

Perhaps our problem is not that we haven’t found the right church. It’s that we haven’t taken the right approach to church.

Perhaps our problem is not that we haven’t found the right church. It’s that we haven’t taken the right approach to the church.

Years ago a wise Indian pastor knocked the bluster out of me. In response to my self-important criticism of the theological limpness and evangelistic anemia of the mainline church, he quietly replied that he found it easier to stand outside of something and throw rocks at it rather than to remain doggedly within it and work for change. His comment made its mark, influencing me from then on to choose my church based not on its vitality but rather on its need.

Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away….
When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face.
1 Corinthians 13:8, 11-12

The longer I have practiced being part of the solution rather than a harbinger of the problem, the more I have come to love the church. What started as a theological commitment to unity has become a part of my spiritual DNA. The more I love God, the more I can’t help but love His body. The more I invest in His family, the more I mature in sharing His own heart.

As frustrating as I still find certain people to be, as infuriating as lousy theology, damaging relationships, and distancing structures still are, I honestly cannot conceptualize of being a Christian apart from the church. It’s my family! Wherever I go in the world, I find my kin. Whether the songs are unfamiliar or the language incomprehensible, these are my people. I have no choice but to bear with them in love.

Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.
Ephesians 4:15-16

So when we raise our voices in critique of the church, we had better recognize that we do it as insiders. Whatever each of us points out as a problem we then have the responsibility to proactively engage. This warty body’s only hope of eventually matching up to its glorious Head lies with each of us, its members, doing our bit.

This is the only Body we’ve got. We may not always like it, but how can we not love it?

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.

No Room for the Spirit

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“There’s just something missing at church. I can’t put my finger on it, but each week I come home feeling frustrated and empty.”

How often have I heard this sentiment expressed by Christians of all stripes (and felt it myself)! If often falls in the context of a fair critique of artificial fellowship, program-driven worship, or pre-packaged sermons. But perhaps, just perhaps, it is a symptom of a deeper issue, one which starts in us.

The “church” of Hannah’s time was experiencing an all-time low. The spiritual leaders who had been entrusted with the holy task of ministering before the Lord and of shepherding His people were instead using their powerful position to take advantage of vulnerable women and to embezzle the offerings of faithful worshippers. Their minds were so far from the Spirit around whom their service and their facility were oriented that they didn’t recognize His work when He showed up!

As she kept on praying to the LORD, Eli observed her mouth. Hannah was praying in her heart, and her lips were moving but her voice was not heard. Eli thought she was drunk and said to her, “How long are you going to stay drunk? Put away your wine.”

“Not so, my lord,” Hannah replied, “I am a woman who is deeply troubled. I have not been drinking wine or beer; I was pouring out my soul to the LORD. …

Eli answered, “Go in peace, and may the God of Israel grant you what you have asked of him.”
1 Samuel 1:12-17

But that didn’t stop Hannah from encountering Him. Her desperation for a child and her deep faith that God was the only One who could give her one drove her into His presence. There, through the veil that separated her from the ark of the covenant, she communed with the Spirit in a powerful way, His prayers bubbling up on her lips and mingling with her own tearful longings. And despite Eli’s well-intentioned blunder, the Spirit spoke His blessing and assurance through His not-so-spiritually sensitive priest. Hannah left the tabernacle strengthened and encouraged, filled with the sweet satisfaction of having met with God.

Though Eli’s sons didn’t recognize it, God’s Spirit was living in their midst. He did respond to the prayers of the faithful who came seeking His face. He did take issue with their corrupt practices. And He wasn’t about to let them get away with using Him as an excuse to get what they wanted or a talisman to protect their own self-interests. So when they hauled the ark out of its holy home and put it on display before the eyes of pagan invaders, God let them lose, both the battle and the gift of His Spirit.

She said, “The Glory has departed from Israel, for the ark of God has been captured.”

When the people of Ashdod saw what was happening, they said, “The ark of the god of Israel must not stay here with us, because his hand is heavy on us and on Dagon our god.”
1 Samuel 4:22; 5:7

But as He had done for Sarah when her husband devalued her glory in a similar way, God honored His Spirit’s abode in the eyes of its captors. He allowed no one to desecrate its holy form. He poured out plagues on the households of those who took it in. And He brought down in involuntary worship the idol-king who presumed to use it as a self-gratifying prop. By time He was finished with them, Dagon and his Philistine devotees were begging for the Spirit to depart from them. The care with which they sent off the ark and the gifts with which they surrounded it testified to their newfound awareness of the Spirit’s power and worth.

“I will not enter my house or go to my bed, I will allow no sleep to my eyes or slumber to my eyelids, till I find a place for the LORD, a dwelling for the Mighty One of Jacob.”

We heard it in Ephrathah, we came upon it in the fields of Jaar: “Let us go to his dwelling place, let us worship at his footstool, saying, ‘Arise, LORD, and come to your resting place, you and the ark of your might. May your priests be clothed with your righteousness; may your faithful people sing for joy.’ ”
Psalm 132:3-9

No wonder David prized the Spirit’s presence with him more than any other gift or accomplishment. No wonder he felt the incredible wrongness of the way the ark had been neglected, abandoned as it was in some shed in a farmer’s field. And no wonder zeal to build a proper house for the Spirit consumed him. The lack of a permanent building or organized worship hadn’t prevented David from meeting with God and enjoying the fellowship of His Spirit. But the value he placed on the Spirit drove him to honor It with the central-most space in his kingdom.

This is what I think we are too-often missing, both in our churches and in our hearts. We fail to recognize the presence and the work of the Holy Spirit in our midst. We forget to honor Its holiness, to give It central place in our thoughts, our prayers, our service, and our worship. We go through the motions of doing the right things while missing the beauty and the power of the One who could fill them with meaning and satisfaction. In short, we take the Spirit for granted.

For the LORD has chosen Zion, he has desired it for his dwelling, saying, “This is my resting place for ever and ever; here I will sit enthroned, for I have desired it. I will bless her with abundant provisions; her poor I will satisfy with food. I will clothe her priests with salvation, and her faithful people will ever sing for joy.
Psalm 132:13-16

The Spirit may be the least-visible member of the Trinity, but It is certainly not the least precious. Last Sunday we celebrated Pentecost, the pouring out of the Spirit on us as individual believers and as a Church. This Gift is one to be treasured, adored, welcomed, and sought out. Whether our churches welcome the Spirit’s manifestations or not, whether they invoke It’s presence or not, the Spirit is with us. Both in private prayer and in corporate worship, the onus is on us to faithfully, zealously seek His face.

And as each heart prepares Him room, Heaven and nature will have cause to sing.

Identity, Purpose, and a Reason to Get Up

IMG_0795“Name one thing worth getting out of bed for.” It was one of those rare mornings (for me, anyway) in which I just couldn’t summon the motivation to wake up.

Actually, this has been one of those unusual seasons in which the immediate is less pressing and the eternal has more space to come rushing in. I’m not generally happy with anything less than an overfull diary and the adrenaline-inducing challenge to clear hurdle after impossible hurdle, awakening each day with a sense of urgency to get up and accomplish some goal. But removing some of those roles on which I hang my sense of importance has allowed me to gaze deeper into the question of identity.

When I teach on identity formation, I begin by asking learners how they introduce themselves. Inevitably, the answers cluster around kinship and roles. A second glance at the surnames our ancestors adopted confirms this is not a new phenomenon: John-son and Jack-son, the Mac’s and the O’s (meaning descendant of), and our many occupational names like Smith, Hunter, Barber, and even Clark (derivative of clerk, variant of clergy).

I remember once being led through the helpful exercise of listing all the ways that I identify myself, the point, of course, being to guide me back to my relationship with God as the bedrock of my identity. While cognitively I found this concept very satisfying, it has really been in the times of losing or struggling in those roles and relationships that I have been compelled to clear away the rubble that obscures the ever-present bedrock of my identity.

What does it actually mean for my identity to be based on God? Is this simply a cliché way of stating that I am nothing apart from Him or that I find my worth in belonging to Him? While all that is beautifully true, it doesn’t actually give me a goal to pursue other than investing in our relationship (which is of central importance to who I am). But surely there is more to life than simply sitting alone with God, loving and being loved. Surely there is a role that this identity entails.

This is the story that I have been searching for. It begins with a man and a woman in a garden, commissioned to fill the earth with babies and plants. Of course that would take time and work, but their goal was clear and satisfying. And their role bore far greater significance than simply clocking in and out each day as gardeners and caretakers. They were functioning as priests in the garden-temple of God. Eden was His home on earth, the physical space where He came to meet with His people. Their work of filling, beautifying, and tending it was a sacred service to Him. They were His holy homemakers!

As the story too often goes, these original priests misallocated the temple resources, taking for themselves a portion that didn’t belong to them and disqualifying themselves from ministry in God’s presence. The garden temple was desecrated and decommissioned, but God didn’t abandon His plan to create a physical space where He could dwell with His people. If anything, their failure made way for a bigger, better floor plan.

The LORD had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. 
“I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” 
The LORD appeared to Abram and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built an altar there to the LORD, who had appeared to him. 
From there he went on toward the hills east of Bethel and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east. There he built an altar to the LORD and called on the name of the LORD. 
Then Abram set out and continued toward the Negev.

Genesis 12:1-9

Abraham’s call to the priesthood came without a temple already provided. But he still understood his role as a mediator of God’s blessing to the rest of creation. He set about filling the land that God led him through with altars and worship, calling on God’s Spirit to come and inhabit that place. And he was meant to extend the presence and blessing of God into that sacred space, representing God in the way he cared for his family, his flocks, and the many “neighbors” with whom he came in contact. Though at times he failed to protect his wife or speak truthfully to neighboring kings, for the most part Abraham used his privileged position with God to intervene on behalf of his oppressed and even wayward neighbors.

And this is where I begin to catch a vision for the role we are playing, too. Though I am far from finished with tracing the themes of priesthood and temple through the Bible (shoot—I haven’t even made it out of Genesis yet), I already glimpse the significance of the seemingly mundane tasks that fill my day. That stack of essays I need to read and respond to, that neighbor I need to call, that mess in the closet I need to sort out—all of this is part of the high calling God has placed on me. As one of His priests living in the earth He has chosen to fill with His Spirit, the daily work that I do of tending, beautifying, and blessing my immediate surroundings is a sacred service to Him.

What finally got my identity-questioning, vision-lacking self out of bed the other morning was His gentle response to my search for purpose.

“Do it for Me.”

The Individualist Branch

branchI consider myself a pretty blessed branch. I wasn’t always so nicely situated as I am now. I started off on the wrong side of the vineyard, growing up on a vine that just wasn’t going anywhere. Thank God He saved me from that dead-end and grafted me in to the Living Vine. Without Him I don’t know where I would be.

Of course, nothing in life comes easy. God has given me so much. The least I can do is take the potential He has invested in me and make something of it. I want to live up to His expectations and do Him proud. That’s why I pay close attention to His standards and strive for excellence in all I do. I never want Him to regret having picked me.

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. … Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. “I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.
John 15:1-5

After all, I understand that the point of being a branch is to bear fruit. I’d be a pretty worthless branch if I didn’t! So I make every effort to fulfill my calling. I avoid the things that would compromise my output quality, and I rise each day determined to produce the best fruit possible. I groom, discipline, and develop myself, ever pushing to squeeze out an admirable and plentiful crop.

I have come a long way from where I started, and most people looking at me would say I am an admirable success of a branch. But if they examined me closer up, they would notice the bitter or blighted fruit that often pops out on me. I scramble to cover it with my charming leaves and other presentable products, but I still know it is there. And that disturbs me.

If I’m really honest, I’d have to admit that sometimes I fake it. In some of my places I look and see no fruit at all. I know the kind of fruit He expects, but it just doesn’t automatically pop out on me like that. What’s a branch to do? So I hold out last season’s fruit, pretending like it is fresh and real. I simulate a healthy, thriving branch while all the while I know that I am shriveling from the inside out.

What’s wrong with me? What am I missing that other branches seem to get? I see them fresh and green, bearing beautiful fruit in season while I push and groan trying to pop out a few decent deeds. What do they have that I don’t?

Sometimes I suspect it might have something to do with that Stream they root themselves close to. Or perhaps the way they all cluster around the Vine gives them an extra advantage.

“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.

My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.
John 15:9-13

But I’ve never placed much stock in going with the flow or running with the pack. I enjoy the challenge of making my own way, maintaining my freedom rather than being confined by the group. I want to bear good fruit, but I’d rather do it on my own. I’ve carried on this far with the sap-transfusion that the Vine conferred on me when He transferred me in. But perhaps that isn’t enough.

Perhaps there is something to this whole communal connection thing. I may be designed for producing fruit, but I can’t produce my own sap, too. And though I prefer connecting to the Vine in my own, personal relationship, I’m beginning to recognize that being a solitary branch falls short of His purpose for me. Only as I conform myself to the greater plant, investing myself in the other branches and allowing them to impinge on me, will we together realize our full organic potential.

If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit…
John 15:6-8

I suppose there isn’t really any room on this Vine for a stand-alone branch. If I want to stick around, I’ll need to stick closer to Him and to my fellow branches. Interdependence may strip me of my independence, but it will fill me with more of His life-giving self.

After all, fruit bearing is a team effort.

Great is Thy Faithfulness?—New Eyes on an Old Story

BlackHave you ever started to sing “Great is Thy Faithfulness” but found the words caught in your throat? A song that at other times has lifted your heart in grateful worship now comes back to mock you, its statements and claims the polar opposite of your personal experience. Morning by morning you haven’t seen new mercies: you’ve heard news of a new crisis. All you have needed His hand has not provided. What are you to make of it?

In the world’s eyes, you might be a laughingstock, someone who has foolishly invested in an unpredictable God and come up empty handed.

In other Christians’ eyes, you might look like a failure, someone who must be out of God’s perfect will. What else would explain His lack of blessing on you, your family, and your work?

Far from being evidence of our Father’s rejection, our hardships are proof of His love.

While others prosper around you, you struggle to make ends meet. While others’ ministries take root and flourish, your sacrificial efforts seem like water poured out on sand. You waver between discouragement and exhaustion, wondering how to interpret your life story. Have you done something wrong, or has God simply been unfaithful?

During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered…
Hebrews 5:7-8

But perhaps you have been interpreting your story through the wrong set of eyes. If we evaluated Jesus’ life by the standard of motivational magazines or successful living books, He would come out the greatest loser of all time. Like us, He struggled and suffered. And like us, He begged God to go easier on Him. He still ended up deserted and destitute, mocked and accused of being cursed by God. But that was not evidence of God’s rejection. It was proof of the Father’s love.

And you have forgotten that word of encouragement that addresses you as sons: “My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son.”
Hebrews 12:5-6

God’s way of prospering His children has always looked radically different than the world’s. If our lives are filled with hardship and struggle, it is merely because He is taking us through the same intensive training to which He subjected His Firstborn Son. Yes, He loves us just as we are. But He also loves us too much to leave us that way. His commitment to our development compels Him to afflict us. Far from being evidence of His anger or rejection, our hardships are proof of our Father’s love.

Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father? If you are not disciplined (and everyone undergoes discipline), then you are illegitimate children and not true sons. Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of our spirits and live!
Hebrews 12:7-9

Because of His great love for us, this Father not only punishes His errant children, He also trains His devoted ones. In some families only the squeaky wheel gets attention. In God’s family, the obedient children get an extra dose of His coaching. At times His training grows so intense that we are tempted to fight Him or simply to quit. But as the legitimate children that we are, we believe He is treating us this way for our good, even when we don’t feel it.

Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.
Hebrews 12:10-11

Somehow in the way God writes stories, going with less prepares us to receive more, being knocked down paves the way for us to be raised up. Suffering and reward, pain and glory—these are the themes He wrote into the lives of that great cloud of witnesses who went before us. And this is the plot line He is mapping out for our lives, too.

But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. In bringing many sons to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering.
Hebrews 2:9-10

And so like the Older Brother who blazed this trail ahead of us, we hang in there. When we are tempted to think that our Father has forsaken us, we look ahead to see how Jesus’ story is turning out. The path to His success led through unspeakable suffering and deep humiliation. But because He submitted Himself to the Father’s discipline, He is now seated with Him in the heavens. The multitude of voices shouting around His throne carry the opposite message of what He was subjected to on earth. And in the midst of all that, He cheers us on.

Both the one who makes men holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers.
Hebrews 2:11

You may be a few steps behind, still slogging through obstructed labor and obscured vision, but you are walking the same trail. And you are not alone. Our whole family has been called to live this story. The details will look different as our Father customizes His training with each one of His kids, but as He was with Jesus, He will be faithful to finish the good work He has started in you.

The song rings true after all: Great is thy faithfulness.

The Slog to Glory

IMG_0587My family and I set out to climb a mountain last weekend.

Let’s just say that the idea of making it to the summit of a Highland munro was more glorious than the reality of actually doing it. Images of the Von Trapp family cresting a grassy, Alpine peak to soaring strains of “Climb Every Mountain” came back to mock me as we slogged across the prerequisite boggy plain. At times our lofty goal was reduced to simply trying to take the next few steps without being sucked down in the mud. And that beautiful vertical ascent I had imagined involved a lot more back-and-forth trudging (to the tune of whining children) than climbing from glory to glory. Despite our burning lungs and quivering calves, the top of the mountain seemed to loom even farther overhead than when we had started. In frustration, my youngest child finally expressed what I was feeling:IMG_0613

“Why are we even doing this?”

If I’m brutally honest, I have to admit that permutations of this question have risen in my mind at different times during my long walk of faith. And I witness the same deep disillusionment in other discouraged believers, trying to find a positive spin on why their lives and ministries have not turned out as they had expected .

IMG_0584We set out with glorious expectations of victorious living and mountaintop experiences with God. We are fortified with stories of great heroes of the faith who seemed to effortlessly leap over challenge after challenge, buoyed up by their overcoming faith. And yet when we get hit in the face by crisis after crisis, or bogged down by the life-sucking sludge of everyday struggle, we are tempted to lose heart.

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

We begin to wonder why we work so hard to accomplish so little, why one hard-won step forward inevitably results in a downhill slide back. Doesn’t God want us to make it to the top? Why does the path have to be so steep, our struggle to climb it so constant? In the face of so many insurmountable odds, we are sorely tempted to sit down and settle for spiritual mediocrity.

Why are we even doing this?

So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded. You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised. For in just a very little while, “He who is coming will come and will not delay. But my righteous one will live by faith. And if he shrinks back, I will not be pleased with him.”
Hebrews 10:35-38

No one forced us to choose this difficult path of faith, and no one is forcing us to keep moving forward in ministry. We chose it because we believe in the One who called us. Yes, we believe in the miserable outcome for those who do not respond to Him in obedient faith. But it’s not really fear of hell that motivates us. It is love for God, and an overwhelming desire to see that look of delight on His face when we finally crest the last summit.

But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who believe and are saved.

He regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking ahead to his reward. By faith he left Egypt, not fearing the king’s anger; he persevered because he saw him who is invisible.
Hebrews 10:39, 11:26-27

The truth is that we really are members of that great cloud of witnesses, ones whose very transformed nature it is to keep going despite ourselves. They kept going not because it was somehow easier for them to keep believing or because the trials they faced were any less daunting, but because their deeper longing for God won out over their immediate desire for comfort and security.

All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth. …If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country–a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.
Hebrews 11:13-16

When I look for what earned these “faith hall of famers” a spot on the list, I don’t find major accomplishments or grand success stories. In fact, most of them died long before they reached the top. Abel got killed; Enoch simply kept walking. Noah got up each day and added a few more planks to the most futile project anyone could imagine. Abraham meandered as a refugee in a land he would never own; and Moses died gazing at it from a distance.

They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated–the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised.
Hebrews 11:37-39

What set these men and women apart were not their heroic feats of faith but rather their unsung refusal to quit. By any human standard, they lived their lives as losers, people who had very little to show for all they had invested. And yet they looked to God for their stamp of approval. And He deemed them worthy. In fact, He is proud to be called their God.

God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, …let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.
Hebrews 11:40-12:3

The same Spirit that kept these saints of old going is now at work in us, prodding us to keep putting one wobbly foot in front of the other. They cheer us on as we finish what they started. Yes, the slog is slow and mucky, but it is taking us somewhere. Our victory is not in how quickly or easily we make the summit, but in how faithful we are to take each inglorious step along the way.

Why are we even doing this?

For the joy set before us.IMG_0641

Sharing at Grace & Truth

What Are You Doing Here?

sinai“I can’t go on like this anymore.”

The pastor groans on Sunday night; the professional sighs on Monday morning; the defeated mother cries into her washing; the depressed father sobs into his pillow.

“I can’t keep living between the rock of responsibility and the hard place of futility. I can’t keep shouldering this burden on my own. I just want out.”

“I can’t keep living between the rock of responsibility and the hard place of futility.”

Elijah had reached the same place. Weary from years of preaching a message that no one took seriously and worn from forever just barely scraping by, he had probably been on the verge of burn-out for awhile. But now fear pushed him over the brink.

The man of God had plenty to be afraid of. The king was furious after three years of drought for which he held Elijah responsible. The queen had just issued a death-threat after he made a fool of her god and took down all of her prophets. But none of that was really new for Elijah. He had always lived on the edge, recklessly pursuing God’s call no matter what the cost. What eroded the last vestiges of his confidence was his fear of failure.

Elijah was afraid and ran for his life. When he came to Beersheba in Judah, he left his servant there, while he himself went a day’s journey into the desert. 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 19:3-4

God had entrusted him with the impossible task of turning His people’s hearts back to Him, and now after the cosmic showdown of the century, they still refused to repent. If all his sermons and warnings, even signs and wonders still didn’t convince them, what more would? Zeal for God’s name had worn Elijah out, but that was all it had been successful in doing.

The angel of the LORD came back a second time and touched him and said, “Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.” So he got up and ate and drank. Strengthened by that food, he traveled forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God.

There he went into a cave and spent the night.
1 Kings 19:7-9

Elijah needed a place to regroup, to escape from constant responsibility and ever-present threats. He quite literally ran for his life until he reached the place where he would be sure to find God: Horeb, otherwise known as Sinai, had been where his ancestor Moses met God back-to-face. Surely here Elijah would receive some much-needed direction from God on how to deal with His stiff-necked, idolatrous people.

And the word of the LORD came to him: “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

He replied, “I have been very zealous for the LORD God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken 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 19:9-10

And sure enough, God showed up. As He had done with the discouraged Moses, He invited Elijah to voice his complaint and engage Him in a back-and-forth conversation .

Elijah’s presenting complaint detailed his frustrated efforts and the people’s persistent rejection of both God and himself. But hidden just under the surface was his respectfully concealed finger, pointing the blame at God for not making things any easier for him. After all, wasn’t Elijah simply trying to follow His orders? Why had God saddled him with such an impossibly difficult burden and then left him on his own to carry it? The weight of responsibility was crushing him to the point that he simply wanted to quit, even if death was the only way out.

The LORD said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by.” Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper.When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.

Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
1 Kings 19:11-13

God’s initial response came not in a verbal defense, but through a series of tangible experiences that would challenge Elijah’s assumptions about Himself. Elijah’s ancestors had experienced Him here as the terrifying God who thundered from the top of the mountain, shattering rocks and billowing smoke until they couldn’t bear being near Him any more. In fear they had begged for a mediated relationship with Him, one in which the buffer of angelic messengers and a stone-encoded set of rules would protect them from being consumed by His fire.

That approach to pleasing God is precisely what wears us out.

But that approach to pleasing God was precisely what had worn Elijah out. No one could bear the burden of those impossibly heavy stone tablets on his own. No one could successfully fulfill God’s calling without His moment-by-moment support sustaining her from within.

You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm; to a trumpet blast or to such a voice speaking words that those who heard it begged that no further word be spoken to them… The sight was so terrifying that Moses said, “I am trembling with fear.”
Hebrews 12:18-21

So God set about showing His servant a new way of relating to Him. His Spirit came not as the forceful wind but as a gentle breath; not as the overwhelming earthquake but as a confidence-restoring whisper; not as the fire that consumes and burns up but as one that consumes and fills. Such an intimate invitation coaxed Elijah out of his hiding place and into God’s presence.

But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant…

Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our “God is a consuming fire.”
Hebrews 12:22-24, 28-29

God’s question came again. What are you doing here? Why have you come back to this scary old mountain? This is the place where fear and distance define our relationship, where rules and performance stand between us. Go to the new mountain where I dwell with my people in intimacy and love, the place where you are neither alone in your struggle nor doomed in your mission.

And this is the same invitation that rings down through the experiences of all who have encountered God in their fatigue. We turn back to Sinai in our performance-oriented relationship with God, shuddering under burdens that He never intended us to carry alone. He invites us forward into the easy yoke of His Spirit, in which His power works through us to accomplish the impossible.

We’re climbing the wrong mountain.

Of course we can’t go on like this anymore. We’re climbing the wrong mountain.

God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.”
So we say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?”
Hebrews 13:5-6