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Torn Ships & The Trusted Anchor

A fleet of paper ships, torn and tattered. This is the image that comes to mind when I think about our local body of believers. Some may be thin as newspapers and others as thick as corrugated cardboard, but even the strongest of us are torn and limited as compared to the wild waters of life.

Months of planning and preparation for our church’s bi-annual women’s retreat have finally culminated and crested. The Lord was so gracious to bring together over one hundred of the precious women of our flock for two days of rich teaching and fellowship. The decorations were stunning, the food was rich, and the teaching was sound. Yet, it is the weakness of our women that leaves me with tears in my eyes today as I process and celebrate.

In a world obsessed with empowerment, it sounds almost criminal to celebrate our weakness, so please allow me to explain.

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It takes great strength to bear your brokenness before people, especially other women. And while the church is supposed to be a hospital for the sick to heal and become whole, she can all-too-often look like a social club of shiny people. Not this weekend.

This weekend, I watched some of the most talented and lettered women I know (PhD, DMD, and lots of other combinations) show the tatters and tears in their ships. I watched them receive each other and offer tears and the tape of biblical truth to reinforce breaking places. I saw their eyes tear up as a sister shared about God’s faithfulness to her young family as they have been weathering the terrible nor’easter called childhood cancer and all the sister storms that follow in its path.

I heard sighs of relief and compassion as another sister shared honestly about the cumulative effect of the small storms of miscommunication in marriage. She put their tattered ship honestly on display that other torn ships could admit their own hidden storms. But she also showed them the trusted anchor of gospel truth that carried she and her husband through the worst of the storm (Hebrews 6:19).

I sat beside yet another sister who showed us the torn ship of her long season of singleness, inviting other paper ships into the secret of contentment that is found in the person of Christ who is the Commander of our paper fleet (Philippians 4:11-13).

My mentor shared, among other things, the privilege of women getting to choose the weaker position of submission to their own husbands in order to model our Christ.  He, though being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped or utilized, but made himself positionally weaker by submitting to Father as an obedient Son to reclaim our fleet (Philippians 2:1-11).

As we trust in His goodness and provision, we are enabled the strength to follow after Him, entrusting our souls to a faithful Creator even in the midst of persecution or pain (1 Peter 2: 23-24 & 1 Peter 4:19)

I was reminded of a portion of John Donne’s beautiful poem A Hymn to Christ, at the Author’s Last Going into Germany.

In what torn ship so ever I embark,
That ship shall be my emblem of Thy ark;
What sea soever swallow me, that flood
Shall be to me an emblem of thy blood.
Though Thou with clouds of anger disguise
Thy face, yet through the mask I know those eyes,
Which, though they  turn away sometimes,
They never will despise.

No matter how torn our ships, we know the One who will bring His fleet home to His harbor in the New Heavens & the New Earth.

For Christ, the unsinkable ship, became a paper ship and allowed the Father to steer Him directly into the storm of all storms where He was torn on the cross that should have been ours. He arose, the firstborn from the dead. He ascended to the right hand of His Father, where He continues to captain the seemingly struggling paper fleet that is His church.

I am so proud to be a part of this paper fleet; in her weakness, she points to the strength and reliability of the Words of her Captain.

 

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From Flimsy to Firm: Theological Ossification

Babies are born with 350 soft bones, which explains not only their arrivals from such tight beginnings, but also their talent for eating their own toes. Through the natural though no less miraculous process of ossification, these bones fuse and harden into the 206 bones of the human skeleton.  Babies could not begin life with the sturdy, rigid structures we know as bones; likewise, humans would not survive if their bones remained pliable beyond those early days.  It turns out that God knows what He is doing.

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Our God is a brilliant biologist and an incredible artist, and as such, He often allows for beautiful parallels between the physical and spiritual realms. Bone ossification is no exception.

Paul Brand, the famous missionary doctor who spent his life working with leprosy patients, draws a fascinating parallel between bone ossification and the process by which his theological views were slowly firmed into skeletal bones over time.

“As I watch bone ossifying, or becoming hard, in x-rays, I am reminded of my own skeleton of faith. As a newborn Christian my faith was soft and pliable, consisting of vaguely understood beliefs about God and my need for Him. Over time God has used the Bible and other Christians to help ossify the framework of my faith. In the same way that osteoblasts lay down firm new minerals in a bone, the substance of my faith has become harder and more dependable. The Lord has become my Lord; doctrines that were cold and formal have become an integral part of me.”

One of the most important things to note about ossification, whether biological or theological, is that it is a process. Processes don’t happen overnight; they cannot and must not be rushed. Additionally, organic processes are usually imperceptible and subtle. Those undergoing bone ossification, either initially as infants or later as those whose bones are healing, are not aware of what is happening below their skin; however, the process is doing its intended work all the while.

When I was drawn into the faith as an unchurched teenager, I was a disjointed mixture of heresies and half-truths. Not only did I not know what I thought about the Bible, baptism, the sacraments, Calvinism and the like, I did not even know that I was supposed to be thinking about them. All I knew was that I was desperately needy and that the gospel had awoken a part of me that I never knew existed.

My exhaustive knowledge of Christianity consisted of two things: I knew God loved me and I knew that I wanted to follow Him.

Rather than shaming me for being flimsy and cartilaginous, the Church and the community of faith surrounding me made space for the process of ossification. They welcomed a new believer with little to no sound theological framework into their family of faith. They modeled for me a hunger for the things of God. Long before I could define the sovereignty of God, I caught the concept from those who lived their lives under it. People had me praying for lost loved ones long before I had a theological framework for evangelism or prayer.

While they longed for me to have a firm theological framework that could stand up under suffering and opposition, they did not try to force a whole skeleton of bones into me in an unnatural or hurried way. Conversation by conversation, church service by church service, Bible study by Bible study,  God, through His Word and His body, strengthened my theological skeleton.

I am truly indebted to those who loved me enough to allow me to be theologically flimsy for a season but would not let me remain as such.

Are we making space in our lives, both individually and communally, for those with flimsy theological skeletons, or are we merely pointing out the flaws in their thinking? Do we expect new believers, especially the unchurched, to simply be born with healthy skeletons intact? Are we willing to be instruments by which God relationally and patiently strengthens their theological bones bit by bit? As Churches, are we doing our part to strengthen the theological skeletons of the covenant children in our midst?

May God continue to strengthen the theological bones of His bride that she might be able to stand firm beside Him.

And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Christ Jesus. Philippians 1: 6.

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Learning Limits

Faster, stronger, higher, greater. In modern society, limits are pushed, not praised. World records drop like pages on a pull-away calendar; new devices for multitasking and limitless work are devised daily; commitments are getting crammed into tighter and tighter crevices.

Let us juxtapose our limit-pushing with the limit-protecting ways of the rest of creation. Many animal species create scent boundaries. When each group stays within its appointed limits, peace and prosperity are more likely to outweigh conflict and competition. Leaves don’t hang on when its time to fall, they seem to accept their limits. Desert dwellers don’t try to push into temperate regions, nor do arctic animals force their way to the tropics. Seasonal flowers don’t attempt to bloom year round.

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The lower creation does not have as much choice regarding the learning of limitations as does humanity, the crown of creation (Psalm 8). This is both blessing and curse for fallen man. Endowed with reason and stamped with the image of God, we have the capacity to press our limits. From the fateful bite of the forbidden fruit to the towering limit-testing in Babel to the Titanic boasts of an unsinkable ship, humanity has been pressing its limits.

Pressing limits is not all bad, as anyone who has been treated with medicine rather than leaches can attest. However, when humanity’s hubris denies and/or defies the Divine Creator and His Created order, we enter into dangerous territory.

Each of us limited in time, limited in space, limited in capacity, limited in gifts, limited in power, limited in knowledge. We intrinsically know this on a grand scale. We laugh at a child who claims he will dig his way to China or call a man who claims to fly or travel through time a lunatic. We don’t expect one person to win a Nobel Peace prize, a Pulitzer and a Heisman trophy.

However, on the smaller scale, we tend to both deny and defy our limits. We even celebrate those who push limits. The busier, the more successful. The stronger and skinnier, the healthier. The more over-committed, the more important. As a result, we are a haggard humanity, frazzled and frayed, over-stimulated and under-satisfied.

Our culture abounds with tips about rest and satisfaction, yet our attempts at vacation, relaxation, meditation and simplification seem to produce a short and surface-level peace and rest. While addressing symptoms, these solutions fail because they do not get to the root of the problem.

Into this limit-pushing hubris of humanity, Christianity speaks a desperately-needed word:

Only true humility leads to true rest.

Humanity is created and, thereby, dependent upon and subservient to a Creator. Peace and prosperity, health and hope flow when we submit to this truth. We cannot be all things to all people at all times; God alone can. We do not know all things; God alone does.

Through His Word, we learn His created order and where we fit into it. We learn of  Good Father whose limits are meant our peace and prosperity, one who longs that we would be dependent upon Him. We learn of a God who not only encourages, but commands Sabbath rest wherein we are reminded that God alone is God and we are His children. When we rub against the grain of the universe, we will get splintered. When we humbly submit and obey, we find true rest.

Learning our limits is a sign of maturity. Living within our limits is a sign of humility.

Raindrops dance in descent,
Leaves know when to Fall,
Yet we resist humility,
We, the crown of all.

Clamoring to make self known,
Competing, clawing and such.
We refuse our proper place,
Thereby missing His touch.

Waves bend at boundaries,
Monarchs follow their flight.
We alone refuse our limits,
Exacerbating our plight.

Bowing beneath the Greater,
Accepting our finite frame,
In submission we find rest,
Kneeling we find our true name.

Droplets and deciduous darlings,
Waves and all winged wild,
Put us to shame in humility,
Teach us how to be mild.

The One who whispered the wind,
The Commander of every crest,
Took on the form of a servant,
In Jesus alone we can rest.

 

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The Weight of a Human Heart

The average weight of an adult human’s heart is only about 11 ounces or 310 grams. That is less than one pound. However, anyone who has walked long enough on our broken globe knows that, emotionally and spiritually, the human heart can weigh so much more.

Last night, one line from the poem “In Praise of Self-Deprecation” by Wislawa Szymborska (say that three times fast) resonated with me deeply.

The killer-whale’s heart weighs one hundred kilos /
but in other respects it is light.

Even though a killer whale’s heart is about as massive as a Harley Davidson motorcycle at at an average of 400 pounds, in some respects, the comparatively puny human heart can weigh far more.

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The Ones who Carry Weights

Our friends have been in and out of the oncology wing at the local children’s hospital for over 9 months. When I have been privileged enough to visit them on occasion, I shoulder momentarily a sliver of the unthinkable weight their hearts have been holding constantly.

We have been privileged enough to get to know some Syrian families here in the states. While they speak poor English and I speak no Arabic, the weights their hearts carry do not need translation. They worry about how to make ends meet and how to hold on to their culture in a new land; they live with survivor’s guilt, wondering how the people who were left behind are faring.

Even in seasons of plenty and prosperity, human hearts hold weights. Fears of the future, concerns for children and grandchildren, sicknesses both physical and mental. The list is as varied as the people in whose chest cavities hearts pump.

We carry the weight of consciousness. We carry the weight of our own actions and the actions of others. We carry the weights of circumstances. And, even though we don’t like to talk about it in our culture, we carry the weight of being separated from God from whom and for whom we were created.

The One who Carried all Weights

God, being in very nature one whose heart bleeds both mercy and justice, took the weight of the weight of our mistakes and our human condition. He could have let our hearts sink under the crushing weight of sin and its resulting brokenness, but His love compelled Him to send His Christ to us.

Christ was connected to his mother by an umbilical cord until he breathed his first gasp of air, then his heart and lungs worked in concert. His human heart constantly beat in sync with the heart of the Heavenly Father. Because He was not hardened by sin’s nature, His human heart felt more deeply than even the most tender bleeding human hearts.

Yet, He willingly took upon Himself the crushing weight of sin for those who would trust in Him by faith. His tender heart was separated from its vital, eternal connection to His father, a separation far worse than the severing of an umbilical cord.

The heart that had stopped beating sat stagnant for three days, until the Father revived it in the Resurrection. His heart thumped in excitement as He showed Himself first to Mary and then to His disciples.

The One Who Helps Us with our Weights

While He has now ascended into Heaven, His heart remains human. He has not forgotten  the weights carried by His children’s hearts. What Christ once was and did, He still is and does. After all,  He is God immutable who is the same yesterday, today and forever (Hebrews 13:8). He who carried weights when on earth still carries weights today.

He sits at the right hand of the throne of His Father and intercedes on behalf of His heavy-hearted children (Hebrews 7:25). He sent His Holy Spirit into the hearts that are His as indwelling weight carrier, a comforter, and a translator of sighs and groans  (Romans 8: 26-27).

While the human heart sometimes feels more weighty than that of the killer whale, we have one who claims our heart twice,  once by creation and  again by redemption. He will carry our weights with us until the day when the human heart surges with full hope, freedom and peace in His bodily presence.

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Held by A Hem

One touch of His garment was enough, enough to heal her inside and out. Her life was held and transformed by one touch of a hem. She had only half-believed He was the hope she had long sought. It was probably desperation more than deep faith that drove her, quite literally, to grasping measures. Grasping for straws, grasping at a cloak; same thing, right?

She had been right and wrong. Right to run to him, to risk it all; wrong in her fear that He would be another in a long line of harrowing disappointments.

All we know of the hemorrhaging woman is that she touched a hem of Christ’s garment. A mere hem was enough to hold her her hope and change the trajectory of her life.

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Her chronic bleeding stopped, which in and of itself would have been enough; yet, the empty ache of abandonment had been clotted and closed as well, which was something she had never even dared to hope.

Daughter, He had called her daughter. Not client, not patient, not thief, not nuisance, though all would have been accurate to some degree. He had addressed her as daughter.

One phrase and one touch are all that is recorded of her in the gospel accounts; however, that fleeting encounter was enough to turn her world right-side up, to shift her orbit from despair to belief.

Even if Christ never showed up in her life again, the touch of His hem would have been enough to hold her eternally. What kind of man must He have been, must He be, that one touch, one word, one word from Him was and is enough to begin the transformation of whole lives?

The God-man, of course. The living hope. The One who remains potent and present millennia later continuing to transform lives in a moment.

The power of the Risen Christ that extends to those who were not privileged to have physically known and seen and heard Him in His lifetime on earth. Frederick Buechner beautifully captures this by saying the following:

“He is also Christ risen in the shabby hearts of those who, although they have never touched the mark of the nails, have been themselves so touched by Him that they believe anyway. However faded and threadbare, what they have seen of Him is at least enough to get their bearings by.”

While one brief encounter with His word or His Spirit or His people would be enough to hold us in rapt attention and transform us, His grace goes so much further. He offers us, those who haven’t seen Him in person or touched His physical garments, more than a hem; He offers us His hand.

While the bleeding women was blessed into believing the Christ whose hem she physically grasped, we are offered a blessing far more powerful, though it is hard to imagine such.

Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe (John 20:29). Blessed by and through an ongoing, vital relationship with Him.

Her eternity, beginning right there at the crowded encounter was held by a hem. We, who would be held enough by a hem, get the invitation to continually, eternally hold His hand.

What manner of love is this?

When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars which you have set in place, what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them? Psalm 8:3-4.

Yet I am always with you; you hold me by my right hand. You guide me with your counsel, and afterward, you will take me into glory. Psalm 73:23-24. 

May we be captured anew by the fact that God who could hold us eternally with his hem has chosen to hold us by the hand from here until glory.

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Tight Places & the Expansive Goodness of God

Birds, canyons, and trees can handle the sheer volume and silliness that seeps out of eleven and twelve-year old boys far better than restaurant-eaters and theater-goers. As such, and in an unabashed effort to fight the tyranny of the screen, we find ourselves hiking and exploring more outdoors. In this process, I have a newfound love for slot canyons.

Last Spring, we drove to the Anza-Borrego desert with friends to explore an extensive slot canyon.  The strange combination of desert heat with shadowed slots was the highlight of our break.

This past week, we drove up to North County to explore Annie’s Canyon, a much smaller, but no less beautiful slot canyon.

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It seems strange that we would drive multiple miles to put ourselves into tight places when we expend so much effort to avoid their real-life counterparts.

Walled in on either side, shuffling through a narrow passage-away, you find yourself literally stuck between a rock and a hard place. In a slot canyon, one finds it beautiful and compelling, whereas in real life, such tight places make one feel hopeless, powerless, frustrated and claustrophobic.

Tight Places, Biblically
Years ago, when studying the Hebrew words in some of my most visited psalms, I noticed that the same word kept coming up again and again.

The word tsar, often translated as distress or adversary, is used prolificly throughout the Old Testament.  Its root word more literally means narrow places or straits and conjures images and feelings of crowding, anguish and constriction.  Perhaps the modern idiom “Stuck between a rock and a hard place” captures its original connotation to the modern mind.

When Balaam was headed where he ought not have gone and God condescended to use his donkey to get his attention, we see the word tsar show up.

Then the angel of the Lord went ahead and stood in a narrow place, where there was no way to turn either to the right or to the left. Numbers 22:26.

Here the word is used to describe a literal tight place; however, the same concept is often transferred to the soul’s situation, emotionally or spiritually, particularly in the Psalms.

O Lord, how many are my foes. Many are rising against me. Many are saying of my soul, there is no salvation for him in God. Psalm 3:1-2. 

Answer me when I call, O God of my righteousness! You have given me relief when I was in distress. Be gracious to me and hear my prayer! Psalm 4: 1.

In my distress I called upon the Lord; to my God I cried for help. Psalm 18: 6.

You are a hiding place for me; you preserve me from trouble; you surround me with shouts of deliverance. Psalm 32:7

Tight places, Experientially
The list goes on and on, but you get the idea. Scripturally and historically, God’s people have been well-acquainted with tight places emotionally, phsyically and spiritually. In their squeezing places, situations, seasons and relationships, they cry out to God for deliverance.  It would not be too much of a stretch to say that tight and constricting places were the rule, not the exception, of their seeking earnestly after God.

Tight places wean us from entitlement and ease. Tight places whet our appetite for broad places and freedom. Tight places train us to cry out to God in dependence reflexively. Tight places magnify to us the elastic ever-presence of God with us.

After one of his many experiences of tight places, this time, being stuck in a besieged city (talk about cabin fever),  David remembered how wonderful God had appeared to him in  such a hard, helpless place.

Blessed be the Lord, for he has wondrously shown his steadfast love to me when I was in a besieged city. I had said in my alarm, “I am cut off from your sight.” But you heard the voice of my  pleas for mercy when I cried to you for help (Psalm 31:21-22).

Another translation says, “He has made marvelous His goodness to me in a besieged city.”

God’s expansive goodness being all-the-more revealed and appreciated in tight places.

Madame Guyon knew a bit about tight places and an expansive God. A French mystic of the 17th century, she was imprisoned in the Bastille for over seven years. Her crime: writing a small book about prayer.

Yet, imprisoned for seven years,  she wrote poetry about the sheer wonder of her God.

My Lord, How Full of Sweet Content
My Lord, how full of sweet content;
I pass my years of banishment!
Where’er I dwell, I dwell with Thee
In heaven, in earth,  or on the sea.

To me remains nor place not time,
My country is in every clime;
I can be calm and free from care
On any shore, since God is there…

If you find yourself in a tight place, be it financially, emotionally, relationally or spiritually, may you learn the expansive goodness of God that is often best seen in the slot canyons of the soul.

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When Ensemble is Enough

Every Thursday evening from 6 to 9 pm for years, I would go to theater classes at Spring Lake Community Playhouse. To most, this would seem a beautiful opportunity, a normal feat.

But for this shy little girl who was utterly tone-deaf and only slightly coordinated, those years in theater were a near-Herculean feat.  We spent one hour at voice lessons, standing around a piano or warming up our voices. But since there is no warming up a voice that is clearly broken, while others sang and found their pitch, I watched the minute hand on the clock slowly edge towards relief, an hour of dance. I enjoyed the freedom to move, or, should I say, I enjoyed as much freedom one can feel in a room surrounded on every side by mirrors. In dance class, time moved as quickly as we leaped, and in no time, we would find ourselves in acting class. Outgoing students thrived as they did soliloquies and made impromptu commercials and such. Shy students with a tendency of blushing tended to turn into little bundles of nerves.

I survived my very short season as a very unknown novice actress in a very unknown theater. And that is precisely what qualifies me to talk about ensembles and such.

I may not be able to sing and I may not be able to dance and I may turn four shades of red when people even glance at me, but I do know about ensembles.

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In my theater years, after auditions there would be an excited, nervous gaggle of children crowding around the casting list. I would wait my turn, run my finger down the sheet of paper, and sigh an earnest sigh of relief to find my name safely in the ensemble. That’s where I belonged. Those were my people, be they nameless orphans in Oliver Twist, street children in A Christmas Carol or flowers in Alice in Wonderland.

Despite my lack of talent and my fears, I actually enjoyed my short foray in the theater.  Even though I only uttered one phrase in all my shows combined, being part of something bigger than myself thrilled me. In the midst of the long practices and the ridiculously tedious dress rehearsals, I had a sense of something greater, grander than my little heart or mind could even articulate.

Ensemble was enough then. I long for ensemble to be enough now.

We live in a culture enamored with celebrities and giftedness and fame. This obsession cuts through  every field of interest and industry. In its most obvious form, this myopia is evident in the music and film industries, in collegiate and professional athletics, and in academic settings from elementary school and beyond. However, in a more subtle form, it has bled its way into our neighborhoods, and, yes, even into the Church.

If we peel back the cultural layer, we find this idolatry with notoriety and fame rearing its ugly head in churches and homes. Peeling back one more layer, we find the culprit: the human heart.

According to the Bible,  the desire to upstage reared its ugly head in the human drama shortly after the curtain opened.  In Genesis, the book of beginnings, Moses recorded what Yahweh had revealed to him concerning the origin and purpose of mankind on Mount Sinai. Moses writes that in the beginning of beginnings, Adam and Eve were discontent with the role they were given by God, desiring to have more power, more control and full knowledge. Meanwhile, as Moses was likely receiving these revelations of the fall of mankind, it was happening again, as his own brother and sister Aaron and Miriam, became discontent with their secondary roles. On and on and on, the cycle repeats itself throughout the entire Bible and continues on into the present day.

Most of us most naturally live as if the world is a stage and everyone else is merely a player in our story. Is there any way to assuage this human hunger for the fame and notoriety of the lead role?

Thomas Chalmers, a Puritan writer, wrote about the “expulsive power of a greater affection,” the notion that the only way to fight desire is with desire. According to this line of thinking, one gets rid of a lesser desire only when a greater desire settles into one’s heart, thus expelling the old desire.

If this is the case, and tradition and experience seem to say that it is, then the only way to fight our desire to be the lead role in our own two-bit story is to be invited into a greater epic story. It’s one thing to be caught up in something bigger than yourself, like I was in my children’s theater ensemble days; it’s quite another to be called up into THE story of human history, the story of God’s redemption of the world through Christ.

The screen-writer and director Himself has written each of His children into roles in this grand drama, be they two-bit parts, minor speaking roles or major roles. This realization has the power to completely transform and rearrange our little lives; it can and should endue our lives with meaning and purpose. In light of the bigger picture, the grand production, we are able to move from competing with other two-bit actors and actresses to cooperating with them to see the story come to fruition and success.

I know this to be true, as do many of you. The problem is that we sometimes lose sight of the big picture. We get lost in our little corner of the ensemble and begin competing and setting up our own ramshackle little stages and sets right there on His stage.  We fret and fume and fester at how no one notices us or appreciates us; we fight for attention, recognition and purpose. When we don’t get it, we sit down with our arms crossed and our hearts crestfallen.

We would continue in such a state, were it not for the graciousness of our God. Somehow, in His winsome manner, He reminds us of the bigger picture. It may be that we hear the faint sound of the chorus in the background, streams of individuals that have joined to become a rushing sea of praise and purpose. It may be that peaking from behind the curtain, we catch a glimpse of the show that leaves us longing to be back in the ensemble, back where, though we were small, we were significant and secure. How He brings us back into contentment in His company if of little matter; what matters is that we find ourselves back in His story.

For when we are in His presence, in His company, ensemble is enough.

“Not to us, Lord, not to us, but Your name be the Glory because of your lovingkindness and because of Your truth.” Psalm 115: 1

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The Great Reward

Sometimes I forget that the Bible has parts in it that are far more exciting than the classic adventure novels or the recently released box-office hits. And then, out of nowhere, I find myself enamored and amazed yet again by the length and depth and scope of the Scriptures.

Genesis 14 has all the elements of an unbelievable movie, but it also has the ability to move the soul as the living and active word of God.

Setting the Scene

Factions of kings allying against each other to throw off a twelve-year rule (verses 1-4). Four kings against five (verse 9). A battlefield that happened to be naturally covered in tar pits into which some of the more unlucky kings fell to their deaths (verse 10). An entire city’s inhabitants and their possessions taken into captivity, Lot and his family among them (verses 11 and 12).

This is the part of the movie where the camera lens would move in and focus on a single man. Abram. Having separated from Lot and settled in different lands, he gets news from an escapee of what has happened to his kinsman (verse 13). He has a decision to make: will he sit comfortably in safety or will he risk everything to attempt a dangerous rescue of your relative and his clan.

Abram does not hesitate; rather, he enlists 318 of his trained me. They are victorious and bring back not only Lot, but also the women, children and other people, along with their possessions.

Abram meets a mysterious priest-king named Melchizedek who blesses God Most Hight and pronounces a blessing upon Abram in the name of God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth  (verses 18-19).

The ruler of the captured people tells Abram to return all the people but to keep all the possessions (verses  17 & 21). In a shocking turn, Abram turns down the astounding, yet well-earned reward.  His reasoning: I don’t need  your possessions, for the Possessor of Heaven and Earth is mine. He alone will make me rich (verses 22-24). He has enabled my very great victory, and he shall provide my very great reward.

A Great Reward

On the heels of such a bold declaration and  decisive act of faith in God,  I wonder if Abram had a moment or two when he wondered, “What was I thinking? Life could have been so much easier if…”

What we do know is that Moses picks up the tale with the word of the Lord coming to Abram  in a vision, saying,  “Fear  not,  Abram,  I am your shield; your reward shall be very great”  (Genesis 15:1).

Abram responds with an honest question, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless” (Genesis 15:2). 

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Suddenly,  we have a window into the heart of Abram.  He did not want possessions, he wanted the people that God had promised him. Yet, he was still sonless and aged. In a manner that follows in suit with God’s interactions with Abram in the past,  God calls him to look away from his sonless lap and toward the star-filled sky.

“Look toward heaven, and number the stars,  if you are able to number them…So shall your offspring be” (Genesis  15:5).

In the midst of an action-filled story with surprising twists and turns, the next verse  is the most astounding.

And he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness  (Genesis  15:6). 

The Great Reward

Abram believed God for a son, but even that son would not be his very great reward. For a greater son was coming. An even more long-awaited and hoped-for child would be born to an even more unexpected mother. That son would be the fulfillment of the promise. Unlike Isaac who was rescued by God’s provision of a ram, this Son would be sacrificed as the Lord’s provision for a sinful people who outnumbered the stars.

And He is our very great reward.

In light of such an astonishing reward, we can, like Abram, choose to decline the shiny, over-promising, under-delivering rewards the world offers us. For we have the guarantee and down-payment of the Holy Spirit who reminds us that our full adoption and our fullest reward is coming (Ephesians 1:14-15 and 2 Corinthians 1:22). For one day,  we shall know Him even as we are fully  known by Him.

 

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Growing Young

In a world obsessed with external youth, it is a strange thing to see how sin ages the soul. Anti-wrinkle creams abound, promising to ease the effects of aging outwardly, but few people stop to take inventory of the aging that is happening within.

I have had aging on my heart and mind this week. While this could be due to the fact that I am beginning to have some stubborn wrinkles taking up permanent abode on my forehead, I think it has more to do with watching the joy and wonder in the lives of children.

The Eternal Appetite of Infancy
G.K. Chesterton forever changed the way I think of the Ancient One in the chapter “The Ethics of Elfland” from his classic book Orthodoxy.

“It is possible that God says every morning, ‘Do it again’ to the sun; and every evening, ‘Do it again’ to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of  infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”

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The eternal appetite of infancy.  It is possible to wonder afresh every morning looking at the same trees on the same walking route in the same neighborhood. But sin ages our hearts and hardens them.

Sin-Aged Souls
In the Old Testament, God continually warned His sin-struck people about the weariness and soul-aging that results from sin. The book of Jeremiah is replete with examples of how God’s people were exhausting and deadening themselves through entrenched sin patterns.

Everyone deceives his neighbor and no one speaks the truth; they  have taught their tongue to speak lies; they weary themselves committing iniquity. Heaping oppression  upon oppression, and deceit upon deceit, they refuse to know me, declares the Lord (Jeremiah 9: 5-6)

In the New Testament, Paul warns the Jewish Christians to not be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness (Hebrews 3:13). Likewise, he talks to the learned yet sin-aged souls in Athens about the blinding effect of sin and the need to grope and feel our way toward Him because of our ignorance (Acts 17:26).

In our own experience, it is likely  that we have both witnessed and lived the detrimental effects of sin.  We know the weariness of chasing after sin in our own lives and we have seen people who have aged tremendously through addiction, hidden sin patterns and seasons of sinful sowing.

Growing Young through Repentance
If sin is an aging agent to the soul, then repentance is its revitalizing agent. 

The more we walk towards our Redeemer by the two-step shuffle (repent and believe),  the more life we find returning to our souls. Life becomes new and fresh again.  We see old things and ordinary people through new eyes.  The hopeless, helpless limp of lifelessness is replaced by a God-wrought hope that puts the pep back into our soul’s step.

Young Again

The world has grown old
From its slavery to sin.
Chasing a moving target,
Weary without, withered within.

The globe has gone gray,
Exhausted from racing.
Souls became misshapen
By years of inward-facing.

Wrinkled and wretched,
Constipated with our own cares,
We’ve grown older than God
In our soul-aging, unawares.  

Turning home in repentance,
Ancient souls grow young.
With every step Son-ward,
Self-shells are shed and flung.

Running to the Redeemer,
Whose soul is evergreen,
Repentance revitalizes,
As souls regain their sheen.

May we experience the soul-revitalization that comes from repenting of sin and turning  to our Redeemer!

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God’s Guidance

I would love to have a mocha with Moses. Among the myriad questions I might ask him over said mocha, a few rise quickly to the top of my curiosity list. I would love to pick his humble brain about the weight of leadership. After all, he carried some incredibly heavy weights with the grumbling nomadic town he essentially mayor-ed and all. I’d love to glean from the rich truths the Lord taught him in those in-between, liminal years he spent in Midian waiting. But I’d also love to hear him speak into God’s guidance.

As someone who spends many hours processing the mysteries and profundities of God’s will with young adults and also as someone who continues to wonder what I will do and be “when I grow up,” God’s guidance remains on the forefront of my heart and mind.

Moses knew God’s guidance up close and personal. Really personal. Like burning bush in your face and pillar of fire going on ahead of you close.

There was very little questioning involved in God’s guidance of Moses. He spoke to him after getting his attention from sheep to a strangely burning bush. He sent him very clearly with step-by-step instructions to Egypt to be an instrument of rescue for God’s enslaved people  (see Exodus 3 & 4). As he held a staff in his hand as an instrument, God was holding Moses in His hands. His calling was clear, though not easy.

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After the miraculous Red Sea crossing, God moved ahead of His homeless people in a miraculous and marvelously clear way.

And the Lord went before them by  day in a pillar of cloud to lead them, and by night a pillar of fire to give them light, that they might travel by day and by night. The pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night  did not depart from before the people  (Exodus 13:21-22). 

When wandering to the next encampment by day in the scorching desert wilderness sun, God provided a directing cloud to shade and steer them. In the frigid temperatures of the desert night of pitch black darkness, God provided them a directing fire to warm and direct their wandering. Their extremity became God’s great opportunity to provide for them and direct them.

I wonder if Moses ever feared that the pillar would stop directing him, if maybe this time, he would be left to his own devices or his own wisdom. I wrote the following poem from Moses’ perspective.

Follow the Fire

What if the cloud becomes concrete,
Leaving us stuck in no man’s land?
What if the fire fizzles and fades?
How’ll we know what you’ve planned?

I’ve learned to sense its gathering,
The readying again to roam. 
In this wilderness wandering,
Your Presence has become home.  

At times, I’m reluctant to roll up the tents,
To again loose these pegs from their place. 
Yet I long to be postured to follow these
Pillars more deeply into your grace. 

Remember, Lord, they follow me,
Heavy with hope, hard on my heals.  
Compounding weight weights on me;
Be the One who continually reveals. 

While You rain down on us manna,
Your map you keep close to your chest.
You would  have our eyes on you
To know when to roam, when to rest. 

Shekinah glory before and behind,
As You lead our sojourning sect. 
For, no matter the travel or trial,
Your presence our path will perfect. 

Oh, leading Lord, please make us those
Who follow the Lamb where’er He goes. 

So often, I hear from others (and think to myself), “Well, if God would make His will that clear to me, of course I would follow. Life would be so much easier.”

We have something far better than a burning bush or a pillar of cloud or smoke. In fact,  we don’t have a something at all.  We have a someone called the Holy Spirit. Rather than whirl around outside of us intermittently, He has chosen to take up abode within us.

And we don’t have to wonder what the destination is. God’s will for every believer is that he or she be conformed to the image of Christ. As Paul wrote to the Church in Thessaloniki, “For this is the will of God, your sanctification”  (1 Thessalonians 4:3).

We have the Holy Spirit, who descended on the disciples in Pentecost in tongues of fire, now indwelling us to direct and to guide us into all wisdom. Rather than guiding us into the promised land, the Spirit continually directs us towards our Lord.

Oh, may we be those who follow the Lamb wherever He goes (Revelation 14:4).