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Inscape in an Escapist World

Our newsfeeds, both the ones in our minds and the real ones that capture our attention, constantly bid us to escape from our realities. They invite us to wish we were on a secluded, tropical island or exploring the French Riviera. They tell us that if we could only get a new set of mid-century modern furniture and some macrame hanging plants, our lives would be richer, simpler, and more beautiful.

Our escapist culture allures us, whether explicitly or implicitly, to run away to external things for renewal and refreshment. On the backdrop of such an escapist world, inscape, a concept termed by the Jesuit poet Gerard Manly Hopkins, resonates deeply.

The Dearest Freshness Deep Down Things

Hopkins used inscape to describe the unified and complex characteristics that give each thing its uniqueness, and he captures this concept poetically in his famous poem God’s Grandeur where he wrote, “There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.”

While the world bids us look out, Hopkins invites us to look deeper into the things, places, and people all around us. When I find myself imagining that a trip to Hawaii would satisfy me, Hopkins would invite me to fight to see the beauty of the Hibiscus flower growing in a pot in my own backyard. When I find myself buying the lie that what I need is a new set of circumstances, Hopkins gently invites me to ask God for new eyes to see the same things more deeply and differently. With the help of the Holy Spirit and an attuned focus, the mundane drives to soccer and baseball practices with my sons become opportunities to see who God has made them with fresh eyes.

When the world lures me to run away, Hopkins bids me grab a spiritual shovel to begin digging for a dearer freshness deep down the things and people in my present life. Hopkins can say this because he knew that those who dig deep enough would eventually find God, the Creator, at the bottom. For freshness can only come from the abundance of the life-giver and source of all refreshment: the Triune God.

The Dearest Freshness Deep Within Us

Scripturally, we see a similar invitation in the Word of God. Although Christianity is the farthest thing from navel-gazing and looking for life in things and people themselves, Christ gives his children new eyes to see God in all things. The Scriptures are replete with terms like “inner man,” “within,” and “the secret place” which reminds us that God sees us all the way through. While the world looks upon the outward appearance, God looks upon the heart or in the inscape, to borrow Hopkins’ term (1 Samuel 16:7).

Our God desires truth plastered not only on our newsfeeds and walls but more significantly within our deepest parts: “Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being, and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart” (Psalm 51:6). The psalmists found hope and stability knowing that even if the earth gave way and the mountains slipped into the sea, God is in the midst of his people therefore, they would not be moved (Psalm 46:2-5). Similarly. the Apostle Paul prayed that the church in Ephesus would be “strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith” (Ephesians 3:16-17).

Freshness without our sin-flawed hearts only happens by grace through faith in Christ. For Christ alone had truth in his inmost part and wisdom in his inmost place. He alone constantly drew strength and life from the source of life. He always saw as God sees, looking past appearances to the reality. Yet, he took within him the foulness of our sin, drinking to the very dregs the wrath of God we deserved. After rising and ascending to the Father, he sent us the Spirit who would dwell within us, making his home in us and inviting us to make our home within the Triune God.

The Holy Spirit within us gives us the dearest freshness deep down at the soul level. Even if outwardly we are wasting away and the world around us is fading, yet inwardly, we are being renewed day by day (2 Corinthians 4:16-18). By the power of the Holy Spirit, we are invited to begin to see as God sees and to think with the very mind of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:16; 1 Corinthians 2:16). As such, we don’t need to escape our circumstances, but we need to run and hide in the arms of the One who lovingly ordered our circumstances (Psalm 16:5-6). We get to ask him to show us more of himself deep down in the places and people of our everyday lives.

Meanwhile in Midian: The Purpose of the Messy Middle

It’s about to be graduation season where we celebrate beginnings with their vague hope and endings with their celebratory finality. I love watching the pictures of proud families and excited soon-to-be high school and college students. We rightly highlight beginnings and endings, but we would do well to also remember that life consists mostly of the messy middle.

The first image that usually comes to mind when most people hear the name Moses is a Prince-of-Egypt-like bearded man holding up a staff and parting the Red Sea. This is the memorable Moses, the heroic Moses, the deliverer Moses. While this image is beautiful, I find myself most drawn to the Midian Moses, the Moses of the middle years.

I imagine the young Moses as having a strong sense of “manifest destiny” (or shall we say “manifest providence?”). After all, he was miraculously saved from sure death when he was drawn out of the Nile by none other than the Pharaoh’s daughter. He was beautiful in appearance; he was educated by the finest tutors in Egypt; he was clearly set apart.

He knew God had plans for his life, and I can imagine him eager to leave his mark. But life took a series of turns that he did not anticipate, culminating in his fleeing for his life from his home.  Thus, Moses, God’s chosen instrument and one with whom God would one day speak face-to-face, found himself in Midian.

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I imagine Moses’ years in Midian were spent swinging between contentment and confusion.

Exodus 2:21 says that Moses was willing to dwell in Midian. The Hebrew word translated willing is “yaal” and literally means to yield, to be content, to be pleased.”  The Lord provided him a wife in Zipporah and a father figure in Jethro. Thus, Moses was content to dwell for decades, living as a common shepherd, husband and father. Contentment.

Yet, I wonder if Moses ever had days when he felt terribly confused at the way his life was panning out. Did he ever have a burning desire for more? Did he long to be used by God to help the Hebrew people with whom his heart was knit? I imagine him wandering through the vast wilderness with his flock asking, “Was this really what God rescued me for? Family and sheep are wonderful, but I feel as if I were wired for more.” Confusion.

In all those years of shepherding and living a quietly faithful life, God knew something that Moses didn’t: Moses needed Midian as much as the Hebrews needed deliverance.

Moses needed to mature, to have his desires and gifts refined. He needed the mundane, the simple and the small to whittle away at his pride and self-reliance. I imagine that everyday of those decades, God was hand-crafting him to be an instrument that was able to hear and to respond to His voice.

The pre-Midian Moses was strong, self-confident, ready to act as a deliverer for the Hebrew people in his time and his way. The post-Midian Moses had learned to take his sandals off before a holy God, had learned a healthy humility that truly questioned whether God could use him.

Midian made Moses.

We all need Midians. We need secret seasons of preparation and identity-forging in which we learn to trust in God’s power and not our own.

For some Midian looks like an extended season of singleness that was neither anticipated nor welcomed. In these years, the God-planted and good desires for marriage and parenting are rounded out and refined. For others Midian looks like unemployment or underemployment where God-given, God-pleasing talents are put on the back burner for a season. There are a myriad of Midians, but they share this in common: they are appointed by an all-wise, all-loving Father and will not last forever (though it often feels like they will).

Sometimes it seems that everyone else’s lives seem to be falling into place or moving forward in the fast lane while we sit in Midian, swinging between contentment and confusion.

Know this: the same God that planted desires deeply within you plans to fulfill them in His time and in His way. Meanwhile, in Midian, He is with you, refining you, refreshing you, reminding you of His truth.

I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus. Philippians 1:6. 

A Legacy of Covenant Love

Every time I walk down a certain hallway in our home, I see, among the family pictures hanging on our wall, a picture that nearly arrests me. A stunning woman looks askance at a handsome, proud young groom. Her eyes show the anticipation we normally associate with weddings, but they also betray a look we don’t expect: a nervousness which is closer to fear than wedding jitters.

She had only met her would-be husband two times, yet she was walking to the altar to vow a covenant of lifelong love to him. No wonder her eyes revealed mixed emotions.

My parents-in-law, as was the custom in their culture, were arranged by their parents. The decision was prayerfully and carefully considered. Each set of their parents saw in the other a good match for their children.

The concept seems foreign to me, one raised in a culture where there is no need for a descriptive adjective before the word marriage. When all marriages are love marriages, chosen by the marrying parties (and often blessed by the parents), there is no need to distinguish between” love” marriage and “arranged” marriage.

As an outsider looking in for the past fifteen years of their long marriage journey, I am astounded at the depths of their relationship. I am humbled by the way friendship and romance grew out of covenant and choice. I am deeply indebted to their marriage, not only for producing my husband, but also for painting a realistic yet regal picture of covenant love.

Their marriage exemplifies what Thomas Hardy so poetically and powerfully captured in his classic book Far From the Madding Crowd.

“Theirs was that substantial affection which arises (if any arises at all) when the two who are thrown together begin first by knowing the rougher sides of each other’s character, and not the best till further on, the romance growing up in the interstices of a mass of hard prosaic reality.

A mass of hard prosaic reality is an understatement. They worked hard to move their family to a foreign nation where they had only tertiary contacts and tenuous hopes. They weathered losing jobs, raising children, and moving multiple times. While there marriage is neither dreamy nor perfect, it is weathered and well-woven.

The strength of their covenant love has been highlighted by over a decade of being tested by the slow, steady decline of Parkinson’s disease. Amma serves as Appa’s primary caregiver, bathing him, feeding him, managing his litany of interventions and appointments. She rarely leaves the house. She has to steal a few moments away for a relaxing trip to the grocery store. Her world has shrunk considerably to match the needs of her hurting husband.

Yet, there are still moments when the two laugh together over Appa’s less-than-lucid thoughts. Playfulness pops out in the midst of the plodding perseverance. Watching her serve him so steadfastly with all of her life literally brings tears to my eyes and refines my view of marriage.

If what C.S. Lewis says about romantic love lighting the slow coals of covenant love is true, their marriage is even more astounding. Their covenant coals were lit only with the fire of promise and trust. They give my husband and I a moving, real-life picture of the love between Christ and His bride.

Covenants and Coals

If romantic love is flame
Lighting covenant coals,
Their love is hard to name:
The arrangement of souls. 

Barely more than strangers,
They vowed longterm love,
Trusting their arrangers,
Depending on God above. 

As they walked through life,
True companionship grew.
As they navigated strife,
One formed out of two. 

After a decade of slow decline,
Years of suffering and serving,
They stand with covenant spine
In their tested love unswerving. 

Coals without first fire lit
Still offer steady heat,
God by His hand has writ
A lifelong love still sweet. 

To God be the glory, great things He has done!

The Power of a Visit

I thought I knew what a visit was until the Lord allowed me to make some Afghan friends. I visit with friends over coffee and have been to plenty of house-warming parties. Yet, I clearly had no idea of the power of true visiting. My Afghan friends consider anything less than three hours a short visit, and when they are with you, there is nothing else going on in the world but you and the visit. Appointments can be skipped, errands rescheduled, and work left undone when a friend over to visit and drink tea from a clear-glass cup.

My American-ness shows in my typical approach to visits: clear purpose, clear timeline, clear boundaries. But God has been teaching me so much through the Afghan approach to visiting. And, come to find out, this concept of God visiting his people is laced throughout the entirety of the Scriptures.

The God who Visits His people

The Hebrew word paqad, often translated as visit, shows up consistently throughout the Torah, speaking of God and his desire to visit with his people.

In Psalm 8, the writer exclaims, “What is man that you are mindful of him and the son of man that you care for him?” A more literal translation here would be, “What is the son of man that you would visit him?” (Psalm 8:4).

In Genesis 21, when God fulfilled his long-in-coming promise to Sarah for a child, the writer records, “The Lord visited Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did to Sarah as he had promised (Genesis 21:1).

Before Joseph dies, as he looks back over his painful and eventful life, he leaves his brothers with the promise, “I am about to die, but God will visit you and bring you up out of this land to the land that he swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob…God will surely visit you” (Genesis 50:24 & 25).

When God comes to Moses to appoint him to lead his people out of slavery (in fulfillment of the aforementioned promise), he uses the same visiting language. God tells him, “Go and gather the elders of Israel together and say to them, ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers…has appeared to me saying, “I have observed you and what has been done to you in Egypt, and I promise I will bring you up out of the affliction of Egypt”.'” (Exodus 3:16-17). The word observed is once again pagad: “to visit.”

Soon after, when Moses had obeyed, the writer of Genesis records, “And the people believed, and when they heard that the Lord had visited the people of Israel and that he had seen their affliction, they bowed their heads and worshipped” (Genesis 4:31).

This seems to be the appropriate response to the realization that the God who made the universe would visit us, seeing us and meeting us where we are: we bow our heads and worship.

Christ’s Visit with Us

All these hints at a God who longs to visit his people come to a culmination in the person of Christ who visited his people quite literally by tabernacling among them as a person. He visited with his creation for 33 years. And while he visited the earth, he made it a habit to visit with people: to meet them where they were and invite them into relationship with him.

One particular instance brings this concept home, and it is only recorded by Luke, who seemed to have a particular heart for the outcast and the sinner. In the story of Zaccheus, we see God’s desire to visit his people showcased in all of its stunning and shocking beauty.

Zaccheus was a Jew who worked on the inside with the Roman powers who were occupying Israel. He lined his pockets while his own people starved, and as such, he was not often welcomed or celebrated. His being rich did not change his diminutive physical stature, so he climbed a tree to see what was going on with this Jesus fella. You likely know the story (Luke 19:1-9).

Jesus sees him, names him, and invites himself over to his house in a gesture that would have shocked both Jew and Roman alike. As if the invitation itself were not enough, the timing of the visit underscores the nature of our God. This encounter took place in the last week of Jesus’s life. He had set his face like flint toward Jerusalem. To say he had a bit on his mind would be the understatement of the century. However, he made time for a visit with a notorious sinner.

An Open Invitation

Visits are costly. They require time which is quite the commodity in our Amazon age. They require proximity and presence in an age where we can far more easily send a package that will arrive in an hour or two. They require flexibility and response. When I think of the reality of God himself wanting to visit with me daily, I am blown away. Yet, God freely and continually offers the gift of his presence (Hebrews 4:14-16). Even though he maintains the universe and upholds matter, he still wants to hear about the details of my day. Such a reality leaves my mouth echoing the psalmist, saying, “What is man that you are mindful of him?”

May the Lord visit with you today. And may his visit with you change the way you visit with those all around you!

Blade by Blade: Painting the World Blue

Red and blue. Progressive and traditional. These words have become battle lines and rallying cries in our  alarmingly divided nation. Yet, in the midst of this battle, the Church must stay the course by sticking to the mission entrusted to her by her Head (even and especially in the midst of a culture that rushes to drop tradition in lieu of a notion of progress).

The Church should always be traditional, so much as she should be looking back to measure herself against the standard that the Word of God, passed down the ages, has set for her.

Our culture, our hearts always search for the shiny and new. The same seems to be true of the Church. We love conferences on the “new” theology, the “new” strategy, the “new” perspective.

The obsession with the “new” is nothing new. Jeremiah cried out, on behalf of God, to God’s people, “They have healed the brokenness of My people superficially, saying ‘Peace, peace,’ but there is no peace…Thus says the Lord, ‘Stand by the ways and see and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is, and walk in it; and you will find rest for your souls.’ But they said, ‘We will not walk in it.'” (Jeremiah 6:14 & 16)

I am not saying the Chuch ought to stick with tradition merely for the sake of tradition, as we all know that the Church is a beloved but broken bride and has been since her inception. However, I am crying out, like Jeremiah, that tradition, insofar as it is lined up with the standard of God’s word, deserves a weighted vote. “The democracy of the dead,” as Chesterton calls tradition, merits a sound hearing.

The Church should always be progressive, so much as she should be looking ahead and moving closer to the vision set before her in the Word of God. Here, I am using progressive in the truest sense of the term. Christ’s bride and body here on earth should always be moving closer and closer to the New Jerusalem, to the picture of the New Heavens and the New Earth so artfully captured by the captured John, imprisoned on Patmos and recording Revelation.

G. K. Chesterton addressed the wrong notion of progress present in his England in Orthodoxy. As usual, his assessment applies today.

“We have mixed up two different things, two opposite things. Progress should mean that we are always changing the world to suit the vision. Progress does mean (just now) that we are always changing the vision…We are not altering the real to suit the ideal. We are altering the ideal: it is easier.”

The mark of true brilliance is the ability to bring thoughts from the highest shelves of human thinking down to the lower shelves in such a way that the average man can access and understand them.  G. K. Chesterton shows his brilliance by illustrating this wrong idea of progress in the example below.

“Silly examples are always simpler; let us suppose a man wanted a particular kind of world; say, a blue world. He would have no cause to complain of the slightness or swiftness of his task; he might toil for a long time at the transformation; he could work away (in every sense) until all was blue. He could have heroic adventures; the putting of the last touches to a blue tiger. He could have fairy dreams; the dawn of a blue moon. But if he worked hard, the high-minded reformer would certainly (from his own perspective) leave the world better and bluer than he found it. If he altered a blade of grass to his favorite color every day, he would not get on at all. If, after reading a fresh philosopher, he started to paint everything red or yellow, his work would be thrown away; there would be nothing to show except a few blue tigers walking about, specimens of his early bad manner.”

Top-class hockey on world-class grass bluegrass RS1932221-23718

If Christ told the Church her purpose was to proclaim the gospel and the Word and the supremacy of Christ in all arenas of life, then we must stay the course. Watching the gospel advance soul to soul is painstaking work. Blade by blade, we are to be painting the world blue.  The work is slow and far from sexy. It seems old-fashioned in such a technicolor world. In light of these realities, one can understand how tempting it would be to alter the vision of the Church to something simpler, quicker, more attainable, to start painting the blades of grass another color.

But we must be the traditional, progressive Church. We need to glance back and glance ahead from time to time, but our gaze must be on our bride-groom, Christ. And blade by blade, we must work to see His will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.

The new thing is the old thing with new people.

Precious & Painful Death

When the Lord speaks, a sentence can feed and fuel a soul. This morning in the corporate reading of Scripture, a seemingly random verse jumped out, arrested my attention, and comforted my soul.

“Truly, truly I say t o you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.” (This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.) And after saying this he said to him, “Follow me.” (John 21:18–19).

“By what kind of death he was to glorify God.” In some ways, it seems like a throwaway phrase. After all, it is a parenthetical statement John added to aide the reader. But every word of God drips with soul-deep meaning.

The same God who had directed his steps all this life would direct his steps in death. The God who had given him a portion in life appointed for him a specific death, tailor-made for the glory of God and Peter’s good.

Peter’s first hints at the death apportioned for him didn’t paint a hopeful picture. Rather, Jesus eased him into the grim reality of an approaching martyr’s death. But Peter is not the same Peter whose flesh raised up against the idea of redemptive suffering in Matthew 16. When Jesus initially shared his own coming suffering that would eventually lead to his death, Peter would have none of it.

And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him saying, “Far be it from you, Lord!” This shall never happen to you.” (Matthew 16:22).

Stubborn though he was, Peter learned his lessons. What he balked at before the cross, he understood afterwards. His self-willed ways were giving way to deep dependence upon and trust in God’s ways.

If God would be glorified in Peter being led to cruel death, Peter would walk with confidence and calling toward that end. For he knew it was not the end, but the beginning of being fully reunited with his resurrected Lord forever. The same call that equipped him for life would equip him for death: “Follow me.”

Precious & Painful

Everything in culture tries to avoid death, yet it comes nonetheless. Sometimes death is sudden and shocking; other times it is a long, drawn out roller coaster of disease after diagnosis. For the past decade, my mother-in-law has done little else than care for my father-in-law who suffers from Parkinson’s Disease. Death is an ever-approaching reality for him and thus for us who love him. The imagery Jesus gave Peter about his death is actually an apt description of what Appa’s last days (or decade) have looked like. A once strong, gregarious man now being dressed and led by many hands from bed to bathroom and back again. God is leading him where he would never have wanted to go.

A friend shared about her dear friend dying from ALS this week. She, too, had been led where no flesh wants to go. Another church member lost his father two weeks ago. A dear friends lost her husband to COVID over a year ago. The list goes on and on. In light of a growing list of deaths, the reality that God knows by what deaths his children will glorify him comforted my aching soul.

When friends lose a loved one, I try to send a beautiful floral handkerchief as a reminder of beauty amidst the brokenness and hope in the midst of hollowing loss. In the notes to these friends, I always share Psalm 116:15, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.” While I always include it, it always give me pause when I write it. It feels so off. The death of his children is precious in the sight of the Lord?

But precious does not mean cute like the little porcelain figurines I collected as a child. The Hebrew word yaqar literally means “rare, splendid, costly, or weighty.” God does not take death lightly, but he also knows what (or rather whom) is on the other side. What is painful in our experience is precious in his.

As believers, we can trust that faithful daily dying will lead to faithful final breath. We, like Peter, need only to do one thing: keep following Jesus. For he knows by what deaths we will glorify God and he will enable us to meet death like a friend knowing that God’s presence awaits us on the other side.

When Death Comes for Me

When Death comes for me, 
Let there be little to take. 
Let all be given, entrusted
Into hands nothing can shake. 

When Death comes for me, 
Let me see him only as friend,
The mean doorway leading
To His presence without end. 

When Death comes for me, 
Let him find me already spent,
Poured out as living sacrifice
Laid down in delighted consent.

When Death comes for me, 
Let me remember whom I serve,
The One who conquered death
To give me love I don’t deserve. 

Bemoaning Boredom

Communication is not what is spoken but what is heard. Throughout the day, there are about a billion things I say to my children. I am not sure what, if anything, gets through. There’s only one sure fire way to know what is actually being communicated to their little hearts and minds. Eavesdropping.

Every once in a while, while I am cleaning the kitchen or folding laundry or hiding in the bathroom, I’ll listen in on the boys conversations (we will talk about invasion of privacy when they can define the word invasion). They have some amazing pillow talk, those two older boys. Their conversations run the gamete: dragons, monsters, plans for inventions, talking about the field trips they will take in 8th grade the way that I talk about retirement.

The other day Eli was complaining of being bored, to which Tyus responded, “Mom wants us to be bored. Because when we are bored, we create new things and come up with new fun.”

In my shock, I may or may not have dropped the laundry I was folding. They are actually listening to me.

Today, while I was resting and reading and praying, the Lord told me that maybe I should listen to me, too.

Internally, I am better than my children at bemoaning boredom. Sure, I rarely walk up to the Lord and tug at His proverbial pant leg to whine, “I’m so bored. There is nothing to do.” But internally, I complain about the monotony of manning the same post day in and day out. I look around at everyone else’s toys and activities and determine that others received the better end of the deal. In my boredom, I mindlessly scroll through the Facebook feed or shop around at thrift stores or fantasize about getaways and vacations that involve quiet and sleep and take place anywhere but here.

Nearly two hundred years ago, Alexis de Tocqueville, a European visitor to America,  made some observations about Americans that still ring true, at least in my own heart and home.

“Born often under another sky, placed in the middle of an always moving scene, himself driven by the irresistible torrent which draws all about him, the American has no time to tie himself to anything, he grows accustomed only to change, and ends by regarding it as the natural state of man. He feels the need of it, more, he loves it; for the instability, instead of meaning disaster to him, seems to give birth only to miracles all about him.”

Guilty as charged.

Teaching Our Children to Embrace Boredom

The greatest temptation of the parent is to give our children what they want rather than what they need. My children, in their flesh want to be constantly busy with fun things, but they need to be busy with boring things like chores or just plain bored.

Boredom exposes their hearts and their idols. it shows gaps. As a momma, my reflexive response is to want to fill all gaps for them. But the gaps are the places where grace and the gospel leak into their lives. When they are not so full of what they want, they may begin to realize what they really need.

It is so challenging for me to let them sit in perceived lack, but such lack points us to our need for the constantly full One. Boredom forces them to look over all that they do have and use it more creatively. It reminds them that this earth is not our home and that we were made for more than personal fulfillment. These lessons are hard to swallow, but the sooner these truths sink in, the better they will be for the future.

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Embracing Boredom as Adults

I see it in my boys who claim boredom in the midst of bins of toys and in between exciting adventures and countless opportunities. I see it in my longing to start something new, do something different, visit someplace exotic. Boredom lies under the temptation to quit my post and find a greener pasture when life gets flat and days get long.

I often tell my boys, “Boredom is a gift. It teaches you to create and to play.”

Today God reminded me that, as His child, He thinks the same for me. He longs for more than my entertainment. He longs for me to be satisfied deeply in Him, not in changing circumstances.

In the monotony I deeply dread,  He gives me opportunity to dig deeper into His well for joy. The pleasures of HIs presence are far more substantial and lasting than the ephemeral pleasures I typically jump to as from rock to rock.

If I am honest, I look forward to bed time, I look forward to a haircut, I look forward to Starbucks coffee splurges. I look forward to the weekend, I look forward to vacation and adventures. I don’t look far enough.

The Lord reminded me ever-so-gently today that I need a longer hope, a longer vision. Psalm 130 is a good place for my soul to sit awhile.

I wait for the Lord, my soul does wait, and in His word do I hope. My soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen for the morning. Indeed, more than watchmen for the morning. O Israel, hope in the Lord; For with the Lord there is lovingkindness and with Him is abundant redemption. 

In a culture that is drowning in entertainment, we are a terribly bored and discontented people. Or at least I can speak for myself.

This week, instead of dreading the monotony, I long for the Lord to transform it, to invite me deeper into His ever-available abundance right where I am. I don’t want to quit my post. The Lord put me here, and He plans to show up. I just tend to be too busy chasing cheap satisfaction to notice His coming.

Charcoal Fires and Forgiveness

The Apostle John was a master storyteller. As with any excellent fiction writer, he painted such detailed pictures of the disciples’ interactions with Jesus that we can almost step into the scenes of his gospels. John’s gospel, likely the last gospel written and the first gospel to attempt contextualization to another culture, approaches Jesus’s life differently than the synoptic gospels.

While John moves swiftly through the first half of the his gospel, often called the book of signs, he slows down in the last half of his gospel account. Suddenly, we move from high-flying overviews with an occasional drop down into detail into a more detailed account of the last week of Jesus’s life.

After the long discourse recorded in John 14-16 and the long prayer recorded in John 17, John leads us back into action in John 18.

Jesus, crossing the brook Kidron, moves into action, having set his face toward the coming Cross. He is in full command throughout the entire chapter, showing the other-worldly nature of his kingdom, which he declares to Pilate in verse 36: “My kingdom is not of this world.”

One seemingly small detail jumps out to the observant reader: a charcoal fire.

Photo by CHUTTERSNAP on Unsplash

As Jesus is brought before the High Priest, having boldly, calmly giving himself up to those who sought him in the dark with torches and weapons (v.4-5), the Apostle John gives us a vivid picture of Peter warming himself around a charcoal fire (v. 18, 25).

John juxtaposes Jesus’s care and concern for everyone else in the moment of his greatest need with Peter’s selfishly warming himself at the fire. John has set the stage for Peter’s three-fold denial around a charcoal fire. The reader can almost imagine the light and dark shadows, the watery eyes from the smoke, the smell lingering on the clothes long after the fire is out.

Later, after Peter’s persistent failure given three chances to identify himself with Jesus, we find another poignant scene taking place around a charcoal fire.

Jesus, having risen from the dead and appeared first to Mary Magdalene and then to the disciples who were hiding in a locked upper room, surprises his disciples who were fishing just as the day was breaking (John 21:1-4).

Jesus first recreates the scene of his original calling of the first disciples, helping them recognize him as the Risen Lord (Luke 5; John 21). In line with his impetuous nature, Peter jumps into the water to swim toward Jesus, forgetting for a moment the wall of awkwardness that still stood between them.

He walks up the beach to a charcoal fire where Jesus is cooking a meal for Peter and the disciples. Peter gave away his chances to align himself with the Lord, but the Lord continues to give himself to Peter in sacrificial, costly love.

Jesus, in line with his nature, does not shy away from the hard subject. Rather, he gently leads Peter there in healing conversation, forcing him to relive his failures by asking him three questions around a charcoal fire. Eyes filled with tears, the smell of charcoal smoke, the interplay of light and darkness. Same scene. Different ending.

Peter is graciously reinstated around the same kind of fire where he radically failed. What a merciful and masterful Jesus we serve.

Charcoal Fires 

Charcoal fires would never be the same,
Their smell would invoke his shame:

Threefold denial of Jesus’s perfect name. 

Days later, at another fire he was fed
Fish with Christ fresh from the dead.
By coals’ warmth to forgiveness he was led. 

Around charcoal fires, Peter spoke of grace,
Sharing good news with God’s chosen race,
Showing them in Jesus God’s own face. 

Now in glory, warmed by Christ alone,
Peter both fully loved and fully known
Sees the Lamb of God upon the throne. 

What are the charcoal fires of your life? What scenes of failure might Jesus be inviting you to revisit with his grace?

“If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, that you might be feared…O Israel, hope in the Lord! For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with him is plentiful redemption. And he will redeem Israel from all his iniquities.” (Psalm 130:3, 7-8).

God Is Not (Only) Distant

Growing up, Bette Midler wrote a song called “From a Distance” that I loved to belt out in our wood-paneled van (yes, I had an old lady soul even as a child). It seemed like such an inspiring anthem at the time, but with a war in Europe happening as I write, its well-intended lyrics show themselves as a weak solution.

“From a distance the world looks blue and green and the snow capped mountains white…From a distance there is harmony and it echoes through the land…It’s the voice of hope ,it’s the voice of peace, it’s the voice of every man. From a distance we all have enough and no one is in need and there are no guns, no bombs, and no disease, no hungry mouths to feed.”

Though the words sound lovely and the music melodic and though the sentiment seems sweet, the song has no logic upon which to stand.

To simply step away far enough until you cannot see the problem does nothing to fix the problem. Without a transcendent reality, perspective and distance do nothing to help us with war.

What Christianity offers is the unique reality of the Triune God who is both transcendent (other, far off, holy) and immanent (near, close).

A Powerful Name and A Particular Name

I had the people of Ukraine on my heart and in my prayers this week as I was studying Exodus 3 where God reveals himself to Moses at the burning bush. It struck me that God identified himself with two primary names to the would-be-deliverer-who-points-to-a-better-deliverer.

When Moses asked God what his name was, he was essentially asking for more information about his nature and character, as name represented so much more than a mere series of letters in his culture. God’s response is both telling and two-fold.

“God said to Moses, ‘I AM WHO I AM’ (Exodus 3:14).

He first identifies himself as the transcendent, self-existing, uncreated One in an ontological statement (a statement of being). But God does not stop there.

“God also said to Moses, ‘Say this to the people of Israel, “The Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob has sent me to you.” This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations’.” (Exodus 3:15).

In addition to the transcendent name, God offers an immanent name. He is God All-Powerful and Self-sufficient, but he is simultaneously the immanent God who has drawn near to a particular people. In fact, he so closely identifies with these people that he choses to include his relationship to the name by which he wants to be remembered and known.

This dual reality is astounding and should rightly lead us to bow our knees in wonder while we lift our heads in hope.

In fact, prior to the conversation about names, God initiated conversation with Moses with two realities. He shows up with a miraculous sign: a bush burning though not consumed. He commands Moses to take off his sandals in light of God’s holiness (his transcendence). Yet, he tells Moses that his reason for such a miraculous sign is an immanent one.

“I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 3:7-8).

Contrary to Bette Midler, our God offers hope that is solid rather than merely sentimental. Rather than stepping back so far as to blur our broken world, our God stepped into this world in the Second Person of the Trinity.

This is the hope we have to offer a war-torn Ukraine: God sees you, hears you, and leaned into your suffering to the point of becoming the Suffering Servant (Isaiah 53). He took upon himself the sludge of sin so we could have the presence and promises of God in the midst of our very real problems.

The God of the universe is also the God of his Ukrainian children.

Fully Opened

As the Spring breaths its new life over a weary, wintered earth, things begin to open. Buds bravely begin the process of opening themselves from being tightly bound, exposing themselves to the outside air.

But buds are not the only tightly bound things. Hearts, hands, and souls are also bound and closed. Exposure to the brokenness of the world constricts the soul. Fears tend to tighten hearts in reflexive self-protection; however, exposure to Christ opens the soul in hope, eager expectation, and even a vulnerable love. Continue reading