Tag Archives: struggle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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

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Missing Purple

attachmentBombed out churches. Imperious monuments. Golden palaces. Now stained glass windows…

I’m finally home from a summer of travels, but I’m still processing the significance of the sights that I took in across Germany and France. So much of a people’s worldview can be discerned by what they build to last long after they are gone. These cathedrals and monuments, paintings and palaces still speak on behalf of their long-dead creators, their messages either ringing true through the centuries or being discredited by the passage of time.

Last week as I stood gazing at the medieval windows of Notre Dame, I was struck not only by what was present but by what was missing. Our guide had already pointed out the stunning imagery of the north rose window, its intricate designs all depicting scenes from the Old Testament that would later be fulfilled in the New. The effect of the light shining through the multi-colored scenes was a stunning purple, intended to communicate a sense of anticipation and forward movement.

But when I turned to look at the south rose window, the one depicting scenes from the life of Christ and the early church, I was surprised to notice that it lacked the same purple hue. The glorious fulfillment of the Old Testament was there, with the four evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) sitting on the shoulders of the four great prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel) and scenes from Christ’s miracles, death, resurrection, and enthronement. But the sense of future anticipation was missing.

…singing of a future glory in heaven while trudging aimlessly here on earth.

I can’t help but feel that the purple is missing from our worldview, too. We are well trained to look back and celebrate the story of what God has done in the past, but we don’t know how to look forward and see that we are participating in the story of what He will due in the future. Without a clear vision of where our story is heading, we lack the direction and the motivation to get there.

You will arise and have compassion on Zion… The nations will fear the name of the LORD, all the kings of the earth will revere your glory. For the LORD will rebuild Zion and appear in his glory. He will respond to the prayer of the destitute; he will not despise their plea. Let this be written for a future generation, that a people not yet created may praise the LORD: “The LORD looked down from his sanctuary on high, from heaven he viewed the earth, to hear the groans of the prisoners and release those condemned to death.”
Psalm 102:13-20, 26

The psalmists and the prophets spoke out of incredibly messy situations, pointing to a future reality in which God’s kingdom would come on earth as it is in heaven. The afflicted man could cry out the depths of his soul’s current anguish and in the same breath describe the heights of God’s future deliverance. The disheartened prophet could talk about the seeming dead-end of hope while still claiming the certainty of God’s promise to make all things new.

How long, O LORD, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, “Violence!” but you do not save? Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrong?

“For the revelation awaits an appointed time; it speaks of the end and will not prove false. Though it linger, wait for it; it will certainly come and will not delay. …
For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea.”

Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will be joyful in God my Savior.
Habakkuk 1:2-3; 2:3,14; 3:17-18

The saints of the Old Testament could endure and navigate incredibly troubling situations because they could see how their story was leading to something better. Of course that hope wasn’t always easy to hold onto. Faith never comes easy, especially when it is severely tested. But their patient endurance paid off when the Messiah finally came and made good on a lot of what God had promised.

But what about all the mess that still remains? Why don’t we see worshipping nations and prostrate kings, all declaring the glories of our God? What happened to the end of oppression and the coming of God’s compassionate, just reign? We live in a world where terrorism and sex-trafficking abound, where impaired bodies and broken hearts define our existence.

We can anticipate our role in that better-than-Eden reality, where life-giving streams and healing leaves apply to everything that’s broken in our world.

We cling to the fact that somehow Jesus’ death and resurrection is supposed to relate to all this, but how? The Old Testament holds out hope that the earth will be restored, and yet the only hope we can point to is the salvation of our souls. No wonder we segregate our lives, singing of a future glory in heaven while trudging aimlessly here on earth. Our only hope is eventual escape-by-death.

We are missing the purple.

Sing to the LORD a new song, for he has done marvelous things… Let the sea resound, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it. Let the rivers clap their hands, let the mountains sing together for joy; let them sing before the LORD, for he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples with equity.
Psalm 98:1, 7-9

If what God has done in history is the full extent of the good news, then we really do have little to look forward to (and all those Old Testament promises were grossly over-stated.) But the fact is that our waiting, and His story, are far from over.

We are still anticipating the New Creation, that time when God will bring heaven and earth together in a glorious union. And we are anticipating our role in that better-than-Eden reality, where garden and city will combine in a Christ-centered utopia with life-giving streams and healing leaves that apply to everything that’s broken in our world.

And they sang a new song: “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth.”

They held harps given them by God and sang the song of Moses the servant of God and the song of the Lamb: “Great and marvelous are your deeds, Lord God Almighty. …All nations will come and worship before you, for your righteous acts have been revealed.”
Revelation 5:9; 15:2-4

Jesus told us to watch and work towards it. John warned us that it would take a great amount of patient endurance to finally reach it. But the day will come when we pick up the songs of the psalmists and prophets and sing them with a new spin: past tense.

If I were to create a stained glass window depicting the world as I see it, I’m afraid it would involve plenty of messy, unpleasant scenes. But as God grants me a developing eyesight of faith, I see a hope-filled hue of purple shining through the shades of pain.

What are the colors in your worldview window?

Lowering the Flags of our Fathers

attachment“This church, along with our whole city, was completely destroyed. The Allies’ bombs wiped it from the face of the earth.”

I shifted uncomfortably as our middle-aged German guide came to this point in our tour of historic Worms this weekend. She had proudly taken us around her beautiful city, pointing out the significant remains of its long, multi-layered history dating back to the Roman Empire and playing a significant role in the Protestant Reformation. But now photographic images of the mass devastation that this civilian population endured at the hands of our grandparents confronted me with a side to the story that I had never really considered before. How could this local citizen so calmly look our group of mostly British and American scholars in the eye and talk about it? Rather than use this opportunity to protest the “terror bombings” carried out against her people at the close of WWII, she shocked me with her humble confession.

“Well, we were the ones who provoked it, after all.”

Are we willing to tell our whole story, including the shameful bits?

This willingness to bear national shame over the Holocaust and the nationalist aggression of their ancestors has impressed me during my brief time here in Germany. This is a country with a long history to be proud of. But nestled among the soaring cathedrals and elegant castles are more recently erected monuments to their shame. A set of pillars in Worms (near the Jewish cemetery) with an inscription memorializing those who were made victims of German nationalist pride. A bombed-out church in Mainz with a series of plaques, describing its proud history but concluding with a humble reminder that any society built on violence and oppression will be judged with a similar end.

He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

Listen! The LORD is calling to the city– and to fear your name is wisdom– “Heed the rod and the One who appointed it. Am I still to forget, O wicked house, your ill-gotten treasures… Her rich men are violent; her people are liars and their tongues speak deceitfully. Therefore, I have begun to destroy you, to ruin you because of your sins. You will eat but not be satisfied; your stomach will still be empty. You will store up but save nothing… Therefore I will give you over to ruin and your people to derision; you will bear the scorn of the nations. ”
Micah 6:8-16

As I listened to our tour guide’s personal acknowledgement of causes for both national pride and national shame, I couldn’t help but draw mental parallels to how a similar situation has been handled in the USA. We treated two entire races of people as if they were not equally created in the image of God, holding one set under our thumb as slaves and later as “liberated” but unequal citizens, and getting rid of the other set through massacres and round-ups into reservation camps. While these are arguably sins of the past, the question still remains of how we respond to their fallout today.

Are we willing to tell our whole story, including the shameful bits? Are we ready to accept the consequences of our forefathers’ actions?

In teaching my children about the American Civil Rights movement, I was shocked but actually not-so-shocked to discover that our Christian history book had simply skipped it, deigning the injustices suffered and the victories won for oppressed minorities within our country not worth mention. Such refusal to acknowledge and disclose the sins of our past can only lead to further hardheartedness and future recurrences.

And in more recent days, I have been deeply disappointed by the refusal of persecution watchdog organizations like International Christian Concern to report on the terrorist shooting of African-American Christians at worship in their Charleston church, not to mention the strong trend of Black-church burnings that continues across the South. Were such attacks on Christians or churches perpetrated in other lands, ICC would most certainly have reported them. And yet despite multiple emails pleading with this group to cover the persecution of Black Christians in their own country, they remain silent.

“Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.”
Job 42:6

For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are proved right when you speak and justified when you judge.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
Psalm 51:3-4, 17

Among the many biblical virtues that patriotic Christians love to promote, somehow confession and contrition seem to get lost. And yet these are the hallmarks of true religion. Upright Job went back and set the record straight, lowering himself in repentance when he realized how wrongly he had spoken of God. And integrity-bound David recorded his confession for all posterity to read when he abused his power to take whom he wanted and get rid of whom he didn’t.

The king summoned the Gibeonites and spoke to them. (Now the Gibeonites were not a part of Israel but were survivors of the Amorites; the Israelites had sworn to [spare] them, but Saul in his zeal for Israel and Judah had tried to annihilate them.) David asked the Gibeonites, “What shall I do for you? How shall I make amends so that you will bless the LORD’s inheritance?”
2 Samuel 21:2-3

Even on a national scale, David recognized the need to accept responsibility for his predecessor’s racist sins. As Israel suffered the ongoing repercussions of Saul’s unethical treatment of the Gibeonites, David humbly took it on himself to do whatever it would take to make things right.

Are we ready to accept the consequences of our forefathers’ actions?

And this is the spirit of contrition and national humility that I see dawning in the American South. The shocking display of racism that left nine worshippers dead is jolting devout Southerners into a public acknowledgment of the stain on our heritage. The Confederate flag may represent much that we are proud of, but it also represents much that we should be deeply ashamed of. Perhaps in its place we would do well to take a lesson from the Germans and erect monuments to those our ancestors have wronged, lest we forget and repeat the mistakes of our past.

“In memory of the dead / as a reminder for the living.”

“In memory of the dead / as a reminder for the living.”
St. Christoph Church, Mainz, Germany

Faded Glory

My friend is dying.

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

This is so wrong.

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

And yet death doesn’t follow my rules.

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

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

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

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

Now the glory of the God of Israel went up from above the cherubim, where it had been, and moved to the threshold of the temple.
Then the glory of the LORD departed from over the threshold of the temple and stopped above the cherubim. While I watched, the cherubim spread their wings and rose from the ground, and as they went, the wheels went with them.
Ezekiel 9:3; 10:18-19

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

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

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

The glory of the replacement would far outshine the original.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unfading glory.

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

Graham Kendrick
Copyright © 1987 Make Way Music

My bit of the story…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What to Expect When We’re Suffering

I sat in church this past Sunday morning, reveling in the beauty and joy of our communal celebration of Christ’s resurrection. Soft organ music filled the empty space with life. A crown of flowers bloomed from the thorns on the cross. The procession began down the aisle, with a shining cross held triumphantly high. My heart soared with hope. Death swallowed up in victory!

But as the back of the procession came into sight, my heart caught in my throat. The man carrying the second cross was still in his wheelchair, still suffering under the effects of the curse. Ordinarily I find great beauty and significance in seeing the juxtaposition of his suffering with the symbol of Christ’s suffering. But on a morning like this, it jolted my spirit with a harsh reality slap. Where is the victory for him?

What is the hope for my mother facing cancer, my brother- and sister-in-law awaiting the birth of a baby with significant internal deformities, or my friend whose mother is fading away in hospital? What does living on this side of Christ’s resurrection mean for them?

But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.
1 Corinthians 15:20-22

Christ’s resurrection marks the turning point for all of history, the hinge pin between the reign of the curse and the kingdom of God. In rising from the grave, Jesus defeated death, He broke the curse, and He inaugurated a new creation.

So what are we to expect now?

The disciples had struggled to know what to expect of Him. But as their faith in His resurrection power grew, so did their confidence in applying it to those still suffering under the curse. A crippled beggar made whole. The sick and suffering healed. Prison doors shaken open. A dead boy raised to life.

…there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
2 Corinthians 12:7-8

But that wasn’t always the way it worked out. Sometimes the thorn was not removed from the flesh, the prisoner was not freed from his chains, the victim was not spared from death. How did they reconcile the victorious reign of Christ with the pulverized body of Stephen or the agonized prayers of Paul?

Somehow Paul’s expectations didn’t seem at all disappointed. He had experienced the healing power of God in his own life, and had conveyed that power to countless others. And yet his faith wasn’t rattled by the constant barrage of suffering from which God did not deliver him. If anything, he took it as par for the course.

But each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.
1 Corinthians 15:20-23

Paul understood the story. Death has been swallowed up in victory—for Jesus. But we are still in the earlier part of the story, the part where suffering precedes glory. Yes, He has opened the gates of glory for us, but the path from here to there still involves hardship and pain.

Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, … so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. Now it is God who has made us for this very purpose and has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.
2 Corinthians 5:2-5

Jesus walked this path ahead of us, and He has given us His Spirit to help us as we now struggle down it ourselves. At times He intervenes, breaking through our present suffering with a dose of future glory. But those healing fixes are only temporary. The pain we are spared in one situation we will face again in another. The body that is miraculously healed from deformity or cancer will eventually succumb to death.

What you sow does not come to life unless it dies.
When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
“Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” …
But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
1 Corinthians 15:35, 54-57

As painful and gruesome as it is, death is the final door we pass through to glory. As much as it stings on this side, it will lose its venom on the other. And in the end, death will be swallowed up in victory for us, too.

He is risen. Our turn is coming!

Called to Wrestle

I’m a fighter. As a kid, my rebel spirit frequently collided with the older, wiser people in my life. Heated arguments with my big brother, disciplinary sessions at school, corrective lectures at home—all repeated the same clear message: I needed to learn to submit. My insubordinate attitude certainly warranted extra doses of correction, but with such a strong emphasis on submission and obedience, I began to assume that godliness meant being mild and compliant, relating to God and others in submissive surrender. But the story of Israel flies in the face of that assumption.

The babies jostled each other within her, and she said, “Why is this happening to me?” …
After this, his brother came out, with his hand grasping Esau’s heel; so he was named Jacob.

Jacob said to his father, “I am Esau your firstborn. … Please sit up and eat some of my game so that you may give me your blessing.”
Isaac asked his son, “How did you find it so quickly, my son?”
“The LORD your God gave me success,” he replied.
Genesis 25:22, 26; 27:19-20

Jacob had always been a fighter. His pre-natal wrestling matches with his twin brother were a cause for great alarm (and discomfort) for their mother. He came into the world grabbing onto Esau’s heel, stubbornly refusing to let go or be left behind. Throughout childhood Jacob tussled with his brother for first place in the family, conning him of his birthright and cheating him of his blessing. For years he grappled with his cunning uncle Laban over ladies and livestock, eventually emerging the victor with four wives, twelve sons, and a massive horde of wealth.

The spunky, tenacious spirit that God instilled in us is a manifestation of His image, an attribute which He invites us to exercise in our face-to-face relationship with Him.

But the one superior with whom Jacob had never wrestled was God. Rather, he had been content to maintain a reverent but distant relationship with the One whom he referred to as his father’s God. Jacob had spoken with Him at critical times in his life, but these encounters had usually been initiated by God. For the most part, Jacob’s own cunning and strength had seemed sufficient to overcome the challenges he faced. He appreciated God’s assistance along the way, but so far he had avoided entering into the kind of intense, life-defining relationship with God that his grandfather Abraham had modeled.

Then Jacob prayed, “O God of my father Abraham, God of my father Isaac, O LORD, who said to me, ‘Go back to your country and your relatives, and I will make you prosper,’ I am unworthy of all the kindness and faithfulness you have shown your servant. I had only my staff when I crossed this Jordan, but now I have become two groups. Save me, I pray, from the hand of my brother Esau, for I am afraid he will come and attack me, and also the mothers with their children.” He spent the night there …
Genesis 32:9-11, 13

God was not content to leave it there. He had created Jacob with his fighting spirit, and He wanted Jacob to engage Him full-on. The night came when Jacob felt most vulnerable and helpless. His brother Esau was coming with a band of 400 men, and Jacob, with his many wives, children, and livestock, was a sitting duck. This was no time to get into a fight, and Jacob knew it. He was scared; his strong will was subdued. In desperation, Jacob initiated an encounter with God. This time he had nothing with which to leverage God’s favor; all he could do was humble himself before God and beg for help. If God had wanted Jacob to relate to Him as a mild, compliant vassal, then this would have been the posture in which He met him. But it wasn’t.

So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.”
But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”
Genesis 32:24-26

Dark night. Mysterious man. Hand-to-hand combat. Strange. For once, Jacob had not picked this fight, but he certainly had no intent of losing it. He knew this was no ordinary opponent; he had seen the angels camping nearby. So he did what came naturally: grab on and refuse to let go. Maybe he could manipulate this man into blessing him. God knew he needed it! Day began to break, and the man seemed to grow desperate. Wrenched hip. Staggering pain! But Jacob still refused to back off. The man pleaded for release. Finally, Jacob had him where he wanted him. Or was it the other way around?

The man asked him, “What is your name?”
“Jacob,” he answered.
Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome.” Jacob said, “Please tell me your name.”
But he replied, “Why do you ask my name?” Then he blessed him there.
So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.”
Genesis 32:27-31

Finally. Jacob was wrestling with God, and God was delighted. He had wanted Jacob to engage Him, to come directly to Him for blessing rather than to sneak it in his brother’s name. But as a result of the new relationship they had formed this night, God had a new name for Jacob: Israel, “he struggles with God.” This name defined the kind of relationship that God was calling Jacob into. It would define the rest of Jacob’s life and the nation that God would raise up after him.

God loves fighters. Yes, He demands our whole-hearted respect and life-long submission, but He did not create us to grovel like slaves. The spunky, tenacious spirit that He instilled in us is a manifestation of His image, an attribute which He invites us to exercise in our face-to-face relationship with Him. For reasons beyond my understanding, He delights in our gutsy engagement. Like our predecessor Israel, we are called to wrestle with God.

After Jacob came from Paddan Aram, he arrived safely at the city of Shechem in Canaan and camped within sight of the city. There he set up an altar and called it El Elohe Israel.
(which means ‘God, the God of Israel’)
Genesis 33:18, 20