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I got into an argument with God this morning. I know it sounds terribly disrespectful, and as if I treat him with commonness inste...

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Attacked by God

Out of the mouths of babes...
Yes, it seems my kids are so often putting it into perspective for me. Or sharpening a perspective. Or making me rethink a long-held, entrenched perspective.

I've been attempting to hold a weekly Bible study with my two elementary-age daughters this fall. We've had some good moments. Most have been trying. I'm far better equipped to teach and explore with older kids and adults than I am with the younger ones, but we keep doing it.

My goal is to touch key points throughout scripture, showing them how God has determined to have a people for himself, and how he makes that possible in Jesus. So far, we've lingered in Genesis longer than I initially planned, but there have been some rich portions to take from it, so it's worth it.

Last week, we talked about Jacob wrestling the Angel of God all night, and clinging to him, saying, "I won't let you go until you bless me." I thought I had communicated the way I envisioned that scene, but you never know what literal-thinking little ones actually come away with.

Last night, we sat down to move on to the sons of Jacob, and I asked if they remembered who Jacob was. Jill's hand shot up, her body wiggling all over like a puppy greeting its master after a separation. "I know! I know!"

"He's the one who got attacked by God!"

What a humbling moment for me. I always think that story is about me, and how I resist God, and how I try to control him for my purposes. It's me-centric in my perception. Or it was, until that innocent and honest and forthright statement. Those of you who know me know it is true: She wrestles with God. Daily. Hourly. I love him and I want him and I do not understand where this is all going and what he wants from me, but I will NOT let him go until he blesses me.

What Jill remembered, though, was that God initiated. God came upon Jacob. God began this altercation with the schemer who was walking his walk as confidently as the Bee Gees approaching a movie camera. He was slithering his way into the life he wanted and he was getting it done. He'd already secured the familial favor of inheritance from his impulsive brother by trickery--no need to wait on parent or labor or even the promise of God for that. Matters well in his own hands. And how did God respond with a "blessing"?

He injured Jacob. He touched his hip so that from that point forward, Jacob walked with a limp. The rest of his life.

No more arrogant strutting for Jacob. No more moving ahead confidently only in his own strength. God hurt him--permanently. To bless him.

From that day forward, every step the supplanter took (that's what the name Jacob means) was a step in remembrance that he was now Israel--he who wrestles with God. And every step would be a reminder of dependence on the one who was guiding those steps already, the one who determines the outcome, which is that he will be our God and we will be his people.

It will be. Whatever it takes.

Oh, how I have prayed, for myself, for my friends, for my children: "Relent, God! Relent! It is too much for us!"

I never would have articulated it this way before: attacked by God. But I've felt it. Haven't you?

Can we look at the patriarch, the hardship of his life, the wandering, the hunger, need, broken families, assault of his daughter, assumption that his most beloved son was dead, uprooting, and then... outrageous, unlikely, lavish, excessive blessing even in this life--the land of the living--with the unthinkable yet to come in the next? Can we claim it too? That it's for a reason, he has a purpose and that I don't get it! I don't get why the injury has to be but will open wounds that are fertile ground for prodigal good--

I don't get it. But I believe it. Can we believe it together? If so, tell me. Tell each other. Tell how he attacked you to bless you and how you're singing as you limp through. As long as it is called today, will you share your wounds to move us all forward? I sincerely want to hear your stories, oh nation of priests. Preach to me of how you were attacked by God and blessed in it.

And if you're not yet sure, keep wrestling. Hold on, and don't let him go until he blesses you. It's what he's about. It's what he does.



Wednesday, November 9, 2016

The Morning After




I woke my daughters differently this morning.

It's usually a palm laid flat on each back, one at a time, and the words, "My little lamb, it's time to get up." And they each complain and ask for more minutes, which they usually get.

This morning, it started the same. The hand, warmth through the blankets. The smell of children sleeping. The gentle stirring, but instead of asking for more minutes, the littlest said, with eyes still closed, "Who won?"

And I told her.

She responded, "Mommy, I don't want to get up. I don't want to go outside ever again."

I know she didn't really mean it, not "ever again," but I also know her heart was honest.

Last spring, a little boy in her class was crying at school. He has brown skin. Black eyes. Black hair. He's small. Another child told him that after the election, he wouldn't be allowed to live here any more. It broke my daughter's heart. I hoped then I was assuring her honestly that it wouldn't be that way. I hope today that's true.

But I know that's still in her memory, and it's likely why she doesn't want to go outside ever again.

But I told her, "We have to, baby. We have to get up. We have to go out. We have to go be the church. We have to love people more than we ever have before. Everybody's hurting. Everybody's afraid. We need to love harder." And she got up. And she went to school. They all did. Life goes on, and our opportunities to be light in it are a little different than they were. We still have a reason to be here.

People with whom I have for decades shared similar ideas and often similar actions held very different views this election season. Discussion didn't bridge the divide for us. "I don't get how you can see this differently than I do" was stated repeatedly. I felt the same way in return.

Many whom I love felt very strongly that one person was their only hope to protect their legal right to hold and express their faith views. That drove their votes.

While I didn't support their candidate or the primary opposition, I feared that supporting the person in whom they put their hope would do far more to damage my faith witness, regardless of its legal status. It isn't so much my legal right to hold my faith that concerns me. It's the actual advancement of the gospel--the good news that there is a God and he loves people and he forgives and reaches into lives and gets people by the heart and never, ever lets them go for all eternity--that I am more concerned about. So even if the law stays favorable, how we get it and how we keep it does matter, because it's on the street with my neighbors and friends, coworkers, shoppers, drivers, parents, coaches, clients--that's where associations are made and connections to the Jesus I know should be realized. Not with a public persona who looks nothing like him.

So we got up this morning. Heavy hearted, but accepting. There's sadness because there's fear and there's hurt among our communities. There's determination, because truth and love are not things anyone can legislate--in or out. And law doesn't lessen obligation or opportunity.

So we got up. And we went out, because we love you. We loved you yesterday and we love you today, and we will love you. We love because HE first loved us. That won't change.




Sunday, November 6, 2016

How Does a Boaz Come To Be?

There's a blogger out there who calls herself A Modern Day Ruth. She is waiting, praying, asking God daily--sometimes hourly--for his provision of a Modern-Day Boaz for her. A kind man. A God-fearing man. A man who will see her, tossed roughly about by life but still faithfully putting one foot in front of the other and being crafted in those moments into a more beautiful person--one who wants to love and is more able to now than before all the crises that shape her. A man who will see that, and despite all the brokenness and history and "not the way he planned it" perspective, choose to love her anyway.

I know a lot of hurt and abandoned women. Many are not so bold as Modern Day Ruth, to put it out there on a public blog--the cries of our hearts. But most have at least wondered: Do they exist? Boaz-es. Today. Are there men like that any longer? And if so, where do they come from? What shapes them into such men who can be strong enough to be bold and stand against convention, and kind and good too, in that strength?

This morning, I heard for the umpteenth time about Rahab.

Rahab the prostitute.

Rahab the lowest of the low.

She wasn't just a woman. She was a Canaanite woman. Ewwww!

She wasn't just a Canaanite woman. She was a Canaanite woman who sold herself to men, and not just to men but to Canaanite men. Over and over.

It would really be hard to find a person who would be considered any more low and unclean to the "holy and upright" men at the time than Rahab. The Canaanite prostitute.

But as we know, she turns out to be the heroine of the story, used by God for the good of his people. The pastor said, "Our markers for shame so often get flipped into signposts for glory."

I have a lot of reason to hope that is true for more than just Rahab. The prostitute.

The pastor had us flip ahead to Matthew 1, to show us how glorious Rahab's story ends up being. You probably know that part of the point of that lineage listed at the beginning of Matthew's gospel is recording for us how Rahab--the unclean--was one of the women in the holy and royal lineage of not only King David but Jesus himself. A Canaanite woman, a prostitute, married into the nation of Israel and credited throughout history in the line that brought God to earth in human form. Glorious, no doubt.

But I knew that. My mind got stuck elsewhere today. Today, the light shone on something else, something much, much more practical and mundane, I suppose, but without it, the Divine embodiment wouldn't have happened so I think it's important even if it wasn't the ultimate.

For the first time today, it actually sank in for me where Rahab's place in that lineage fell. You see, the prostitute, the used and abused and desperately worthless woman--that woman, was the mother of Boaz.

The same Boaz that gets referred to today as the example of what abandoned women long for. The kind, hardworking man who looked outside himself and the business of his daily life and his workers and saw the abandoned and displaced Ruth and cared for her--and felt blessed by her and not embarrassed or awkward or repulsed when she responded to his kindness.

What makes a Boaz?

Boaz was born into a family that seems impossibly unlikely. We don't know much at all about who Boaz's father was. His name was Salmon. Was he one of the spies that Rahab protected? Or just another Israelite who, for some unimaginable reason was willing to take HER as a wife after Jericho fell? We really don't know. But Salmon did the unthinkable and took a Canaanite wife--a woman who had been utterly used by men. A desperate woman. A woman with no hope except to sell her body (and I promise you, her perception of selling her soul with every transaction) to stay alive in a world that saw no other value in her.

And with that union, a son was born, and nurtured into the man that women even today consider the manliest to be desired.

I wonder what the mother-son discussions were like as little Boaz grew into a man. I wonder how he saw his mother, how he loved and respected her, how he learned to dignify other women and to think humbly of himself. (I want to credit his father here too; I can imagine Salmon himself had to be humble and open-hearted and forgiving in an extraordinary way.)

I think we're getting something wrong. I can get pretty anxious about the way that ALL the brokenness is likely shaping my children. I worry about the loss of ideals. I worry about how much they're missing--all that I wanted their perfect childhoods to be. I cannot claim to understand God's economies and how he somehow works something majestic and holy and royal and divine out of the darkest threads in our stories.

But he seems to do so. Because Rahab the prostitute raised a Boaz, and through him nurtured the line of the King of Kings--who binds up the broken hearted and adorns his Bride, who lay in her blood and filth, with purity renewed. The Bridegroom who never abandons. The Kinsman Redeemer who isn't ashamed of his Bride, but glories in calling her his own. The Boaz of Boazes.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Captured Thoughts, Renewed Minds

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. -- Romans 12:3, ESV

You know the struggle. "We have the mind of Christ," says Paul in 1 Corinthians 2:16. So why the daily wrestling? Why the return to the old ways of thinking? Is there ever progress or victory in this process of transforming and renewing?

Some years ago, I was in a very dark place mentally. The truth I knew wasn't permeating. It wasn't transforming and it wasn't renewing. The journey out of darkness and into light was long and painful. I'm still on the same journey, but I can say there's progress. It's not a straight-line path toward victory, but over much time, I have learned a little bit about where my own responsibility to work out my salvation in the presence of the Holy Spirit can be expressed and practiced.

This morning, a good friend asked me to share with her my notes from a Sunday school class I guest-taught on this subject after much wrestling on my own in the area of renewing the mind. She asked if the notes were on my blog, and since they were not, I've decided to share them here now, years later, in case they might be helpful to any of you. 

Please don't read this as a formula. We know that formulas and rote mechanics do not work. Though I've broken this into steps, it's a relationship and not a rule book that makes it effective. Let me know how I can pray for you if you're in this place. I want to, beloveds. We need one another, as is spelled out below, and we're made for one another.



Paul speaks about renewing the mind. (Romans 12:2) It is a transformational process that moves us from having minds like the world, like our own natural (called fleshly) states, to having the mind of Christ, which Paul says we do have, as believers. (1 Corinthians 2:16) It isn’t automatic, however, that once one believes, the mind is instantly renewed. It is possible to be stagnant in that process or led astray again. (2 Corinthians 11:3 says: “But I am afraid that just as Eve was deceived by the serpent’s cunning, your minds may somehow be led astray from your sincere and pure devotion to Christ.”) And we know this. We can all say how we have been tempted by deceptions, tempted both to believe and to act in ways that are not in accord with God’s will. We all know that we have a tendency to make things other than God our idols in our daily lives. So our minds need training, and it is a rigorous training. Paul encourages us to work at it. (Philippians 2:12: “work out your salvation with fear and trembling.”)

How do we do it? What are we being asked to do when we are told to “be transformed by the renewing of our minds”? Do we simply believe what we believed when first saved and wait on the Holy Spirit to do the rest? I would say both Yes and No. Yes, there is waiting on the Holy Spirit to work. But no, it’s not JUST waiting. There is also an active participation in “taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ” that is also asked of us. (2 Corinthians 10:5) And it is by this taking our thoughts captive that the spiritual battle, which takes place in our thoughts often before it appears in our actions, is waged. It is in our minds that faith is established and held firm when emotions and circumstances seem to fail us. It is in our minds, when our thoughts are submitted to Christ, that we are renewed, transformed, and able to demolish every argument that sets itself up against the knowledge of God—those arguments that would lead us into unbelief, lack of trust in God, and ultimately sin in deed.

There’s a pattern here: What one thinks shapes what one believes. What one believes shapes how one acts. Change what you think and you will change what you believe. Change what you believe and you will change how you act. Change how you act, and eventually, even how you feel will be changed. But feelings are usually the last thing to change. They do follow, though, in time.

This isn’t exactly a formula, but I have learned a process over the last few years to change my way of thinking, and sometimes my way of feeling. Here, I am breaking it down into five manageable steps to work through calling on Jesus and the Spirit for renewing the mind in a transforming way. It may be most effective to hear it from my own experience, and so I am relating some of that here.

What one believes is what one lives by. Over a difficult period of about 15 years of my life, I had come to believe that I was unlovable, unlikable, and therefore worthless. I believed that the only way I could attain a sense of worth was to meet all the expectations of other people, so that somewhere I would find affirmation. That's deadly thinking, and it’s sinful thinking. It is 1) denying God's own declaration that HE has given me worth and that he has already acted in love toward me with the gift of salvation; 2) denying grace; it is totally works-righteousness oriented thinking; and 3) just simply impossible. People's expectations sometimes aren't known even to them, or they conflict one with another, or they even conflict with real godliness. When I began to realize the truth that it was impossible for me to find a sense of worth from human affirmation, which is what I truly believed I needed, I fell apart. All the management of outward appearances, of trying to be someone I wasn’t, of trying to be someone I didn’t even KNOW, in order to be liked, loved, appreciated, failed me.

I remember the day I began to unravel. It was December 11, 2010. Of course, it had been ongoing before that point, but that was the day I recognized that all my efforts at "holding it together myself" were failing. It got much worse for about eight months. I felt like God had abandoned me. I couldn’t “feel” him with me, and that perception of his absence sent me into despair. There’s depression, and there’s despair. And I despaired. I began to think I must have been made to be a vessel of wrath. The despair from feeling separated from God was more than I could bear. It was the worst experience of my life. It wasn’t real, but it was the way that my mind was led astray by the enemy’s cunning, to deceive me about who God is and what he has already done. There was a spiritual battle going on in my mind—the way I was perceiving circumstances, the way I was perceiving God, the way I was perceiving my own need, and all that needed to be transformed.

What I’m about to explain is how God performed that transformation. First, I think because I am his, and always was through these years, I knew I could never let go of some faith. I spoke it out loud to a group: “I do not know how God is going to get me out of the despair, this fractured thinking, this lack of focus and this new incompetence, but I do believe that he can do it.” I honestly could not see HOW he would bring me back to a functioning existence, but I never believed he couldn’t. That’s not hopelessness. It is an admittance of helplessness. It is an admittance of needing a Savior outside myself. He can, and he does work, but at the same time, we are in relationship, and I have a role in it too. I had to work; it was hard, and it took a long time.

This is the process that I think Paul in particular (but also Peter and John) is teaching us throughout the scriptures for how we work with God--with his presence and power--to transform and renew the mind:

1) The first step is recognizing when a wrong thought has entered one’s mind.
A temptation, a lie, a discouragement, a false trust—anything that falls short of God’s standards for our thought life—is what we are talking about recognizing. That’s what we’re talking about capturing. Take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ. Have you recognized that your trust is in money? Success? Financial security? Did you expect that a "right" sexual relationship would dispel temptations? That self-medicating would solve, or at least dampen, pain?
I recognized that thinking I was worthless and unlovable was harmful, shaping and maintaining my despair and keeping me from being effective for God’s purposes. At its heart, I wasn’t believing God.
At first, it is easy and natural to dwell on the thought quite some time, and even act on it, before you recognize that it is wrong and needs to be addressed. It’s also easy to be tempted to think it’s “just how you are” and can’t be changed. But with repeated practice, just like practicing any skill, it becomes easier to recognize and capture those thoughts. Over time, it does begin to become “the new natural.” We are more than conquerors through him who loved us. (Romans 8:37)

2) Identify the lie or deception in the thought.
Once you recognize and capture the thought, consciously identify what makes it wrong or harmful. By believing I was worthless or unlovable, I was, in essence, calling God a liar. I was believing a lie instead of his truth. Exposing the lie is like naming something. In the Bible, naming something had to do with taking dominion over it. God names the day and the night at creation. Expose it. Bring it to light. Take away its power.  Ephesians 5: 11-14 Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them…when anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible…

3) Reject the lie or deception and replace it with the biblical truth.
Next, intentionally reject the lie and intentionally replace it with the truth. This is a conscious act of speaking scripture to yourself. Some Bible knowledge is helpful to have, so that the sometimes muddy, unbiblical thoughts can be replaced with clarity in Bible truth. But even if you don’t yet know the scriptures that back up the truth about your particular situation, then this is a good time to begin to search the scriptures, again intentionally, for God’s words that do relate.
I wasn’t believing God’s promise that he had chosen me before the foundation of the world. (Ephesians 1:4) That I was adopted as an heir, a dearly loved child. (Ephesians 5:1) That my faith had equal standing with the very apostles. (2 Peter 1:1) That he had prepared in advance good works for me to do (my life matters in his plan). (Ephesians 2:10) And that nothing could separate me from his love (Romans 8:38) which has already been proven by Christ not turning away at the Cross. (Philippians 2: 6-8) These are the truths that counter my own damaging deceptions.

4) Ask for help. PRAY.
This is not about works righteousness. It is not just a “power of positive thinking” process. It IS a power process, though. Positive thinking may help for a little while, but alone, it will fail us too. Pray, pray, pray. Pray at that moment that you’ve caught yourself in the thought. But in your next devoted prayer time, pray again, more intently, consciously confessing with honesty to God where this weakness is for you. (1 Thessalonians 5:17) Ask another person whom you trust to be real and transparent to pray with you and for you too. (James 5:16)
I will add here that I know, believe me, I know, how hard it is to be vulnerable enough to tell someone else the darkest secrets of your mind, and expect that other person to love you enough to stick through it, to support you, to go with you to ask for grace, and to remind you that nothing is bigger than Christ's payment on the Cross. I know this is hard. Outside of God's grace, it would not be likely--maybe even impossible. But that is just exactly the kind of bridge between believers that grace does build. One need not wear one's sin or despair on one's sleeve for all the world, but trusting a few with the whole truth is what our siblinghood is for. You were not meant to carry this alone. Nor was I. And a threefold cord (you, me, and the Holy Spirit) is not easily broken. (Ecclesiastes 4:12)

5) Expect Christ’s response.
We are being conformed to the image of Christ. We are being given the mind of Christ. There is nothing at all, no sin, no fear that is beyond the scope of God’s power to take dominion over. This is the very work he has revealed to us that he is focused on: redeeming and renewing sinners. The God who has called us friends (John 15:14-15) will act as a friend. Friends may play very different roles in your life, but if a person is a friend, there is one thing you can always rely on: If you ask a friend for help, a friend will respond. If you ask a friend for presence, a friend will respond. The Holy Spirit will respond. (Philippians 4:19 God will fill your every need according to his glorious riches in Christ.) What did he say our greatest need was? Freedom from sin. He will respond to fill your greatest need.


How long does this process take? How long until you see progress? Honestly, it takes as long as it takes. This is your walk with him. For me, this five-step process of changing what I believe took about a year to show results in my thinking. But it’s not total victory either. It’s progress.

Going through this process many, many times a day for about a year. I think it is important to recognize this: Sanctification is a lifelong process, but that does not mean God is not responding. Sometimes it really takes a long time, a lot of perseverance, waiting, seeking—but not giving up—to be able to see the progress of redemption in our experience. God already knows the number of your days and he is the one who determines “when the days were accomplished.” He already sees you as you will be—in Christ, that is who you are. We are called to press on toward the goal (Philippians 3:14) and continue persevering in the training, like an athlete (1 Corinthians 9: 24-27). And he will be faithful to complete the work he has begun in you. (Philippians 1:6)

Friday, September 23, 2016

Our Family Battle Plan against the Tyranny of the Urgent

She stood with one tiny hand on the doorknob, looking up at me. Small, thin, and big-eyed.
“I’m going out to do cartwheels,” she said, but I knew it was really a question. “Mother May I?”
I almost spoke, but stopped.

This morning, when I went in to wake her, I picked my way to her bed through a treacherous muddle of shoes, toys, clothes. At breakfast, I reminded, “You have to clean your room today. Before you watch a show, your room needs to be tidy.”

But regardless of that morning's advisement, I looked into those huge blue eyes and let her go turn her cartwheels in the yard while I went back to the dishes in the sink. The room can wait.

Moments later, she was back in with her sister. “Mom! We have a sickling!” In big sister’s palm is a blue and black butterfly. It sits calmly, gently lifting and lowering its broken wings. It will never fly again.

I wondered if it had any sense of being satisfied. Had it flown enough? Traveled adequately? Or was there longing and discontent? Did it wish for one more day? One more hour? One more flower to light upon? One more surprise breeze to lift it on a serendipitous course?

We gently placed it on a rhododendron leaf. The girls went back to cartwheels. The room and dishes can wait.

Yesterday, my beautiful friend quoted Mary Oliver:

Your clocks, he says plainly,
Which are always ticking,
do not have to be listened to.
The spirit of his every word.

“He” is the mockingbird in Deep Summer. He has a wisdom I’ve been grappling with long now.

This past spring, author-speaker-wife-mother Ann Voscamp borrowed my laptop to host her slides for a speaking engagement. My availability granted me a seat beside her on the front row in the convention hall. When she took the stage, she seemed to be talking only to me, and not the crowd of hundreds, when she held up a jar containing a few kernels of something. Corn, I think. Her husband is The Farmer. Each kernel represented one day she had left with her teen at home. She shook the jar. The paltry seeds barely covered the bottom. My heart sank.

My oldest is 17. I would have fewer kernels than that in her jar if I made one. She meant to be encouraging-- “You have this many days. Use them well!” But in my experience, those kernels get consumed far too rapidly by an entity I call “The Urgent.”

The Urgent is a Tyrant. He is voracious and omnipresent. He is behind the forces that work together to fill every hour of every day on the weekly planner--before the week even arrives! He has many tools in his arsenal for enacting his tyranny. He calls them necessity and generosity and propriety and many other wonderful-sounding things, but they are not all actually as noble as those commodities truly are. There are often counterfeits mixed in among the real. The counterfeits masquerade, but if we ever have the presence of mind to stop and lift the mask, we find we’ve been bowing to guilt and compulsion and people-pleasing and personal greed.

These are the guises by which The Tyranny of the Urgent is enacted and they are powerful.

Late this summer, my teens and I sat down together with a calendar. We know we cannot overthrow The Urgent in our lives entirely, but we have determined to make an effort. A concerted effort, as a family, to make the most of these days, redeeming the time, so we don’t look back like that broken and spent butterfly, wishing we’d had one more day, one more hour, one more adventure together when college takes one of us away and life alters forever.

I share this with you not to pass on a formula for victorious living. It isn’t like that at all. But we made a commitment and maybe it’s helping just a little. Maybe if you battle the same Tyrant, and he has you exhausted and spread too thin and missing the really important things because of the counterfeit necessities--maybe you can find your own path through the flood too.

We decided we would approach our calendar with a predetermined prioritization in mind. No event would go on the calendar in ink until it had been held up against our list of priorities. We set those like this:

Top Priority: Worshiping God as he has said he is to be worshiped.
What does that mean? We settled on Sunday corporate worship with other believers as a non-negotiable, and daily prayer and personal Bible reading--even if it is only a few short verses. Next, loving others in our daily lives as a form of living sacrifice that is our spiritual worship.

Second Priority: Family and School.
Here we are forced into something of a tie or at least a balancing challenge between family and school priorities. There are tests that MUST be taken for a senior in high school. Assignments must be completed. But family cannot be set aside either. Our relationships will change so much over the next few years. The dynamics are wide and varied. Every one of us has a bit of a breaking heart over anticipating the next step in the First’s life--even while we cheer her on, the hole she will leave is already gaping open near us. The suggestion of her absence is palpable.

Third Priority: Adequate Rest.
This will not be a time of leisure, and sleep may at times be too rare, too short. But an unrested person is a stressed and inefficient person. It is difficult to redeem the time when one is snappy, irritated, and anxious. We do not worship well, love well, plan or execute well. We are the people of rest. We are covered by grace for our failings. We are called to a time of Sabbath. We are trying to remember that God makes this a priority for us, and we need to believe him, that he is able to take us where we need to go and give us rest too. (This should probably be higher on the list, but this is where it fell for us. Help our unbelief!)

Fourth Priority: Extras.
Sports. The girls are committed to a team, but they are not essentials on that team in the way they might be if God had granted them superstar skills. Non-essential activities that are meant to bolster our worship. Volunteerism. We love to be about the church’s business, but for this season, we cannot do every activity that would fill all our spare time and take us from the opportunities in the community we live within to participate in everything else. We refocus on Priority 1, and remember the blessing of simplicity.

We had set aside tonight as a girls’-night out long ago with specific plans for the evening. As it turns out, those plans had to change. The event we had planned to attend together, anticipated, looked foward to, did not happen. But we kept our commitment to one another. This is how we’re battling the Tyranny of the Urgent. We can flex. We can change. We can adapt. We can remind one another what we committed to and keep the spirit of the commitment. We’ll still have our time together tonight. And that was what really mattered--not the what but the who.

And I treasure these things in my heart. The Tyrant has no place there. It is the home of Shalom, and today, I am pursuing Shalom over Desperate Urgency. A little at a time. One choice, one refocusing, one prioritization. Baby steps toward peace while seeking progress at the same time.

Love God. Love each other. Do the next needed thing. Open your hand and let go of what you cannot manage well. Redefine necessity. And know, every little thing is going to be alright.


"In all your ways acknowledge him and he will direct your paths."

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Mysteries Being Revealed: The Sign of Jonah and a Coin in the Mouth of a Fish



Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered him, saying, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.” — Matthew 12:38-39

When they came to Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma tax went up to Peter and said, “Does your teacher not pay the tax?” He said, “Yes.” And when he came into the house, Jesus spoke to him first, saying, “What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tax? From their sons or from others?” And when he said, “From others,” Jesus said to him, “Then the sons are free. However, not to give offense to them, go to the sea and cast a hook and take the first fish that comes up, and when you open its mouth, you will find a shekel. Take that and give it to them for me and for yourself.” — Matthew 17:24-27

Mystery.

A mystery is not a secret. It’s not an unknowable concept. A mystery is something presently covered from sight or full knowledge, but in the process of being revealed. It’s something we will know. Like a gift that’s being unwrapped before your eyes.

There’s likely nothing that gets me quite as invigorated as a good mystery being revealed. Today, a bit of mystery was revealed, and I do love it when connections click and puzzle pieces come together and there’s a bigger, fuller understanding of my God in the results.

I have to give credit where credit is due for those who’ve had a role, whether they knew it or not, in today’s Contents of My Head explosion. I would say that my Facebook friend Father John Cox, an Eastern Orthodox priest who posts intriguing statements, examples, sermon snippets, and thoughts on social media, planted a fisherman’s hook in my brain earlier this week. He made a simple statement with no explanation beyond this regarding the components used by Jesus to feed a multitude in Matthew 14:18 — “We have only five loaves here and two fish.”

Father John says the five loaves represent the Torah, and the two fish represent the dual but equal union in Christ of God and man. He says, “The bread of the law kept the people of Israel alive for a long time. Now they need the fish of the God-Man - the Gospel of participation in His death and resurrection - in order to grow strong and thrive. Christ makes the meal complete.”

The passage says that, at this feeding of Jewish listeners, Jesus broke the bread and gave it to them. They ate, and took up 12 baskets full of broken pieces. The fish are not mentioned as being distributed yet. Interesting. The Jewish community is seeing a miracle before their eyes. They are being nourished by it. By him. They see the excess that he who came first to the Jew and then to the Gentile—together the entire world—produces, not accidentally, but abundantly for each of the 12 tribes.

But it’s not yet complete. First to the Jew. And then to the Gentile.

In Matthew 15, he again gathers a multitude around him. Mark’s parallel retelling specifies in chapter 7, verse, 31, that this gathering was in the Decapolis—an area of 10 Gentile cities.

Then to the Gentile.

This time, the God-Man takes “seven loaves and the fish, and having given thanks he broke them and gave them to his disciples (Do we hear the Spirit say, "Go therefore…"?), and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up seven baskets full of the broken pieces left over.” (Matthew 15:32-39)

It would be the Jews who would hand him over to be crucified. It would be the Gentiles who would act out the laying on of hands, the whip, the nails. In the Jewish mind, there were only Jews and then everyone else. It was the whole world who turned against him, first the Jew and then the Gentile. It was the whole world he came to save. Only when both are nourished by the God-Man would the plan be perfected, complete—like the number seven represents in biblical literature.

“And they took up seven baskets full of the broken pieces” of bread and fish, 15:37 says. After the whole world had received him, first broken him and then received him, perfection in excess is displayed for all.

Much of this I had seen before and knew. But the fish representing Christ himself was a symbol I had not grasped. Even when Father John pointed it out, I wrestled. How? How does the fish represent Jesus? Where’s the evidence of that?

Today, it came together.

We had a guest speaker at worship this morning. Martin Ban, president of Redeemer Seminary in Dallas, Texas, filled our “pulpit,” — or would have, if we were that formal. Martin spoke on Matthew 17:22-27. He showed us how this fractured alignment of Jesus’s announcement of his impending death was connected to the discussion about paying the temple tax which immediately followed it. In summary: Jesus tells his disciples that he will die for them and rise again. The disciples don’t hear this as good news. They are distressed. Martin qualifies their distress under a broad umbrella of “disappointment” we all feel when our plans don’t pan out like we’d hoped. Immediately, the passage takes us to a discussion about taxes and then there’s a fishing trip involved. At first, it makes no logical sense, why this happens here, but he ties it together: The temple tax, Martin says, was the same tax paid in the book of Exodus, which was called a “ransom tax.” Jesus has just revealed that he will be dying, and even his closest followers don’t understand why this has to be—yet. The religious leaders completely reject that there’s anything special about Jesus, so they send out their collectors to demand that he—he who is the Temple embodied; he who IS the ransom tax—chip in his fair share. And he does, so as “not to give offense to them.” But how?

This is where the bells started to ring for me—at first, far away, as if muffled within the belly of a fish under the sea, but then clearer and clearer: “No sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.”

Where does the ransom tax come from in this scene? From inside a fish.

I understood the “sign of Jonah” up to this point to be the time Jesus would spend in the tomb. Jonah was three days in the belly of a fish and Jesus was three days in the dark tomb. But now I think it is so much more than that! Jesus wasn’t being dismissive of the Pharisees who demanded a sign, because the sign of Jonah is the full gospel being revealed. The sign of Jonah is a huge revelation of what it is the God-Man does for the world!

Jonah was in rebellion against God. Rebellion against God is the best summary there is for our universal human condition. God wanted Jonah to go to Nineveh and warn them that the residents there were in sin and would face judgment unless they repented. God had called Jonah to a mission of mercy in order to bring salvation to the people in that city. And Jonah didn’t want to go. As he rebelled, refusing to go with the message, he was allowing those who were perishing to continue to perish. And he was OK with that. He himself wasn’t participating in or encouraging their sin, but he wasn’t willing to help them to life-saving repentance. In this case, his rebellion was somewhat passive. He would just let them die. How many of us know our own sin to be just like that? I’m “pretty good most of the time, but I am quietly, passively keeping my knowledge and joy to myself, letting the others find their own way to death or life.” (Do we hear the Spirit say, “Go therefore and make disciples… I am with you always…” — the very closing words of this gospel, so rich with the sign of Jonah?)

But Jonah didn’t stop there. He didn’t just sit at home saying, “Nope. I’m good. They’ll figure it out, God.” No, he ran away from God. He brought others into his disobedience, and brought chaos on them in the form of a storm that threatened their lives. While Nineveh was passively perishing because Jonah wouldn’t go talk to them, the crew of the boat he used to try to run away were actively perishing—until they threw him overboard.

As Jonah sank into the depths that should have meant death to him, a giant fish swallowed him up. Today, I saw this fish as God himself, thanks in large part to Father John’s Facebook post. But I saw more than that: God himself swallows up our rebellion. That’s what Jesus took, what Jesus became in Gethsemane right before he went to the Cross. He became our sin. He became our rebellion. They say you are what you eat. The idea carries over to Jonah and to Christ and to communion. The fish is now united with Jonah. The fish that is showing us what God will do in Christ.

As a little girl, I wondered why the fish’s stomach acid didn’t dissolve old Jonah in there. We’d heard stories of how potent that stuff is, eating flesh right off of bone. But remember this is a mystery of God we’re talking about—like the burning bush. God is a consuming fire, and the bush burned, but was not consumed by him at the very same time. God can purify without destroying. In his mercy, this is what he did for Jonah. After three days, he delivered him safely, mercifully, to the shore, where the overwhelmed prophet finally chose to obey and lived to see the repentance of a people who were on their way to destruction.

After swallowing up our rebellion in union with himself, Jesus took it first to the Cross, and then to the grave—for the same time that the man Jonah was in the fish, the God-Man is in the tomb. And like the fish spit out Jonah, the grave too will give up Jesus, our ransom.

“Take the first fish that comes up, and when you open its mouth you will find a shekel,” the ransom tax. Peter, the fisherman, who will be sent out by Jesus like Jonah was, will see the sign of the prophet Jonah when he obeys this bizarre instruction. He will see his own ransom spit out of the fish, and later, out of the tomb. Jonah’s fish (God) and our ransom (Christ) on display for him, a mystery still being revealed to Peter and to us.

As all this was spinning in my mind, I was also prompted to the memory of John’s description of the fishermen disciples meeting with Jesus after the resurrection (chapter 21). On the third time he appeared to them after rising, he told them where to fish, and when they pulled in a successful catch, they found he had prepared already a fire with which to cook the fish. They ate together of it. Is this, perhaps, their first communion? Immediately after this, he takes Peter aside—Peter, who looked into the mouth of the fish and found his ransom there, Peter the fisherman—and three times emphasized, “If you love me, feed my sheep.”

“If you love me, do as I first asked of Jonah.”

No sign will be given you except the rich and wonderful and complete and perfect sign of the prophet Jonah.

It is no wonder that angels long to look into these things! (1 Peter 1:12) Nor is it a wonder that we will be given an eternity to continue opening these mysteries about the person, character, and work of God. Nothing less than eternity would be sufficient to fully know and enjoy all that he has to show us of himself.


Glory!



Saturday, July 9, 2016

What if there was no forgiveness?

“It’s a hell of a thing, killing a man. Take away all he’s got and all he’s ever going to have.”
                        —Clint Eastwood as William Munny, Unforgiven



What if we lived in a world with no forgiveness?
I mean, none. No forgiveness at all. One bad turn earns another. Harm escalates. Retaliation is all we know. One day, a generation would look back, if they survived it, and say it’s all they ever knew.

Can you imagine? Maybe we’ve been given a glimpse into that in the last few days and weeks—a world that doesn’t know forgiveness. I dare say the description above is accurate. Literally, a hell of a thing.

A few years ago, when, in my view based on my short time on this planet, the world seemed much more innocent and manageable than it does today, I watch the well-known Clint Eastwood Western film called Unforgiven. I thought I would never watch it again. It is by no means an easy film. There’s not much clarity in this one regarding who’s a good guy and who’s a bad guy. No white hat and gentle demeanor give that away. And there are far too many sunsets with not enough sunrises to offset them. A widowed man. Hard of heart, it seems. Gets invited into a situation that didn’t automatically intersect with his life. He has to choose whether to get involved, and how. And why.

A horror has been done, to a woman. Somewhere in the story telling, revenge gets the narrative. Greed has a leading-man role as well. Hopelessness and a theme of “We’ve all got it coming” pervade. One bad turn earns another. Harm escalates. Retaliation is all the characters seem to know.

There is no forgiveness.

The end was bleak. I felt drained. I never wanted to see it again.

I wonder if Mr. Eastwood felt the same way about his film once completed. I wonder if he couldn’t let it stand as it was. I wonder if he felt compelled to tell a different story, a story where there is forgiveness, and a hope of redemption.

I wonder, because later, I saw another of his films that came out after Unforgiven. It has a common feel. A widowed man. Hard of heart, it seems. Gets invited into a situation that didn’t automatically intersect with his life. He has to choose whether to get involved, and how. And why.

Over the course of the film, a horror is done, to a woman. It seems that revenge is going to claim this narrative too. At first. But I picture Mr. Eastwood standing as director, actor, writer, at a crossroads. Will this be a modern-day setting for Unforgiven? Or will he direct his character down a different path?

In Gran Torino, Mr. Eastwood took the other turn. The leading character has to decide, and his decision is that escalation will not continue because of him. His decision is, “Enough. It will stop right here, with me.”

I won’t go into details because if you haven’t seen it, and if you can stomach the hardness, the darkness that gives the story its setting, you should. You should see it and experience how the story doesn’t have to end the same way.

If there’s forgiveness. Radical forgiveness.

If there’s forgiveness, there can be redemption. There can be a better ending. There can be hope. And even if it’s true that “We’ve all got it coming,” there can be something even beyond that.

Something . . . beautiful.

The last few days have not been beautiful, but some of you have found beauty and shared it. I thank you. We are hurting and frightened and sometimes angry and craving beauty. Even little gifts of goodness are fuel in times like these. But they aren’t enough for the big problem. We need something bigger.

We’re not the first nation, people, community to hurt like this. We won’t be the last. Look around the world right now. Read Mindy Belz’s book They Say We Are Infidels. Remember the lessons of your history book. Look up Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr. Talk to your parents, grandparents if you’re still blessed to have them. Read Night. Read Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl. That’s just recent history. You can keep going as far back as you want to, even to the point of a woman named Eve, who brought forth two sons, the first record of brotherhood on the planet. The first record of murder.

We’ve all got it coming?

Unless, there’s forgiveness.

The same book that records the story of Eve’s boys also records later the story of a king who forgot, for a time, what he was called to do, sharing in the responsibility to nurture and promote the kingdom he had been entrusted with. In his arrogance, he made a grave error, and it cost many lives. They were lost in the form of plague, spreading across the kingdom. One death leads to another to another to another. Is there no end? There was nothing the king himself could do stop the plague. But someone did.

God himself said, “It is enough.” And where did that happen? The plague stopped precisely at the threshing floor of Araunah (or Ornan) the Jebusite.

Araunah the Jebusite had constructed his threshing floor on Mount Moriah. Does that sound familiar? Remember old Abraham, the childless, who gets a son, whom he loves, with his wife Sarah in their old age? Abraham was instructed to take his son Isaac to Mount Moriah, and for a time we are pretty sure that something awful is going to happen. But at the place, God showed Abraham that what he and I and Isaac all ought to have coming to us was not going to progress. God himself said, “It is enough,” and just as Abraham had predicted to his son, God himself provided the payment on that day.

That same God stopped the deadly pestilence at that same spot in the days of King David’s rule. It was enough. Because he said so.

But that’s not all that happened on that spot. David’s son Solomon was the one to build a Temple for God. Do you know where he built it? Yep. Mount Moriah, on the site of the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite—the same spot. The Temple, which was the place where sins were atoned for and forgiveness granted. The Temple, which was the physical, architectural embodiment of our need, as a race, for a means of forgiveness. The Temple, which represented God himself. 

A couple hundred yards to the north of that very spot, still a part of Mount Moriah, is another significant place. It’s called Golgotha in Aramaic. I haven’t been there, but I’m told that the proximity is surprisingly close. These places in old Jerusalem were in unmistakable proximity to one another, revealing unmistakable purpose. They mean something.

It was on that spot called Golgatha that God, in the man Jesus, said, “It is enough,” for all of humanity, for all the revenge, all the escalation, all the continuing paying evil for evil that we do. All the lawlessness, rebellion, and harm we do to each other is really enacted against him who made us too. But it stopped, right there, with him. Because he said so. Because he was willing to end it. He took MY responsibility for me, in my place. He said, “It stops with me. I will do it. I will bear it. I will pay for it.” And he did.

He didn’t have it coming. He chose what he hadn’t earned to put an end, in an ultimate, eternal sense—not just a temporal one—to this hopelessness we are so steeped in. As completely and abruptly as the pestilence sweeping across the kingdom came to a stop at the threshing floor of Aruanah the Jebusite, so did the condemnation of death come to a stop for me at that site when he said, “It is finished.”

It was enough.

It’s enough for you too, and anyone who will say, with their hope seated in this truth: “God saves. In Jesus, God saves.” In that, I am safe to put revenge to death. I am safe to trust that whatever harm is done to me, or to someone I love, that it cannot take from me my place in his plan, in his kingdom, in his presence. This isn’t all there is, and praise God for that! But this does still matter, and a world that doesn’t know forgiveness will not get better. It won’t even stop where it is now. It will only continue to escalate.

There are two possible paths before us all—corporately and individually. We can choose to move onward toward retaliation and try to settle the score ourselves, justifying our actions and leaving destruction after destruction in our wake. Or we can choose to stop, to lay down our weapons and our claims to even the score, and to say, “It is enough. It stops here. It stops with me.”

The person I most want to be like in my life showed me how. I don’t want to face you, my friends, my neighbors, my countrymen, my fellow inhabitants of this world, with a clenched fist—not a fist held in anger, ready to assault; and not a fist clenched tightly around any possession or right I fear losing. I want to face you with an open hand—to hold, to share, to walk through this existence with.

It is enough. Because of the example set before me in that man at Golgotha, not because of any goodness of my own, I want to say “No more. Let peace begin with me.” I want to choose that path.