Wonder recovered

I go for a walk looking for fall colors. The brilliant reds of really classic fall photos are absent here, we have yellows and browns. One small tree at least attains reddish brown, I stop to look. 
Then my attitude shifts. My longing for bright red fall colors is partly an illusion. If only I could see such a scene and walk around in it, then I’d be content. But yet God has as thoroughly and wondrously made these yellows and browns. They are not any less his handiwork for being more common. These too are precious creations from his hand.

I pause at a newly mowed lawn, where I can see the tracks of the mower back and forth, merging together at the edges. Another shift. I’ve always valued the wild, the complex non-linear patterns of nature. But what is this I see really? Not complex and awesome? A mind, a soul, an image of God, has chosen to impose flatness on this patch of grass, like God in creation — ordering, dividing, setting limits. And it is an intricate dance, the person who wants a flat lawn acquiring a machine; engineers, craftsmen, retail workers all played their part to make it real and available. 

Longing for significance

I long to be the center of attention, the one in whom all things hold together.
But that longing is doomed to fail, the world is far bigger than I.
It is God at the center, who hold all things together.

I am at the center of his gaze, his attention is on me, more focused than I can imagine. His attention is also on everyone else, and I cannot fathom how he can focus on so many at once. But he does. And his focus, although divided, is still greater on me even than the attention I pay to myself. He has counted the hairs on my head.

Yesterday I thought of the two bricklayers, when asked what they are doing.
“Laying bricks,” one says, “I have five hours left on this shift.”
“Building a cathedral,” the other one says. “Won't it be beautiful!”

Maybe there's more to the story. The first bricklayer won't last long, the work is too hard and the coworkers too annoying. The second one keeps going, he has a vision for his job. But then comes the day when they will plaster and paint the walls. "What? Why?" the bricklayer cries out. “You're hiding my bricks! How can I show my children and grandchildren what I built here?”

“Don't fret,” the architect says. “The crowds may not notice your bricks underneath the plaster and paint, but I will. You did well -- you laid a good wall.”

God grant us the grace to trust that his attention, his commendation of our work is enough. We all long for notoriety and attention from others, but let us commit those desires to God.

I believe and I don't believe

I was startled this morning reading a familiar passage, Mark 9:14-29. Jesus, Peter, James and John have just come down from the mountain after the Transfiguration, to find an argument and a confused crowd. A man with a demon-possessed son says he brought the boy but the disciples were not able to drive out the spirit. Jesus asks to see the boy, and the spirit threw the boy into a convulsion.

“How long has he been like this?”
“Since childhood,” the father answers. “It has often thrown him into fire or water to kill him. But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.”
“‘If you can’?” said Jesus, “Everything is possible for one who believes.”
Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”
The father's words are impressive for their honesty. “I do believe, but I also don't. Please help.” I wonder how often are we that honest in our prayers?

Empowerment, a holy buzzword

I enjoy satirizing corporate buzzwords. My favorite punchline for "Why did the chicken cross the road?" The business consultant: "We developed with our client a comprehensive plan to leverage her core competencies and better position herself for success in today's changing marketplace environment."

But "empowerment" is one corporate buzzword that represents something holy, something God has been doing for a long time. God does empower his people. In fact, without God's empowerment, there is not much to say for us. God enjoys taking ordinary, insignificant people and making something great of them. 

But alas, we all too often find this too hard to believe. At first we struggle to believe God could do something with us. Then we shift to struggling to believe God can do something with that other person. Or we cling to the role God has given us, forgetting that it is his gift, and that he likely delights in giving the same kind of gift to others. If we feel driven to control everything around us, because no one can get the details right as well as we can, have we not lost sight that our position and competencies are gifts from God?

I think God calls us to be stewards of the authority or positions he gives us. He gives them to us for a time, not to be kept permanently for ourselves, but to be used for his kingdom. The time will come when we won't have that role any more, we are to hand it back to God, or see God hand it to someone else.

The gift of being a beloved child in his kingdom, that is eternal. That we can cling to and call our own. The gifts of being someone notable in this world can only be temporary. We are only temporary in this world.

Greeting to the Trinity

O loving heavenly Father, who runs to meet us and welcome us home;
O elder brother, who is not ashamed to call us brothers and sisters;
O Spirit, who makes us the place chosen for the dwelling of his Name.

Luke 15:20
Hebrews 2:11
2 Corinthians 6:16, Deut 12:11

Significance in God's sight

A thought struck me this morning. Sometimes I've thought about heaven as a place where we can admire great art -- as lovely as this world is, heaven will be lovelier. And also great art from human artists -- perhaps a collaborative symphony from Bach and Beethoven? This morning I had a new wrinkle on the thought. God appreciates any kind of artistry. Maybe even assembly line workers. Might one of the exhibits in heaven's museum be several thousand inside passenger door panels put on by someone who took his job seriously, who did it as well as he could. Who ever noticed how well those panels were put on? I think God would.

God's work given to us

Paul writes in Ephesians 2:10 (NLT) "For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago." So God has planned things for us to do. Therefore it follows he has planned things for others to do. It isn't up to us to try to get as much done as we can by learning all the tricks of multi-tasking and self-promotion. So we should not be frantic to do more, but to be confident God will enable us to do what he wants us to do. A poem by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn reminds me of this truth. He wrote this when after years of suffering in the Gulag and nearly dying of cancer, he abruptly found himself one of the most famous young writers in the USSR when his first novel came out.
At the crest of earthly fame
I look back in wonderment
at the journey beyond hope--to this place,
from which I was able to send mankind
a reflection of your rays.
And however long the time
that I must yet reflect them
you will give it to me.
And whatever I fail to accomplish
you surely have allotted unto others.
I admire his faith -- "however long the time that I must yet reflect them, you will give it to me." Also his humility, "whatever I fail to accomplish, you surely have allotted to others." So we too should have faith that God will enable us to do what he has given us to do, and humility that what we are not able to do, God has assigned to others.

God's humility and ours

Philippians 2:6-11 is a really awesome passage. Awesome both in the contemporary sense: really, really, really great! and in the the archaic sense: so great it frightens me. This was my favorite passage in my twenties. I loved the image of Jesus giving up his equality with God, lowering himself to the lowest depth made himself nothing ... humbled himself by becoming obedient to death -- even death on a cross And then God the Father's response, Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name. In my mind I saw this wondrous cycle, Jesus giving up and then the Father exalting him.

But then I realized how awesome in the archaic sense it was. If Jesus is so committed to humbling himself, making himself nothing, that means we his followers have to do the same. And that could be really hard! Maybe I should make my favorite verse Come to me all who are weary, I will give you rest or The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. I was reminded of it this last week. First, that great meditation by Jon Bloom on John the Baptist's humility. "John had blazed across Judea like a shooting star, the first real prophet in Israel for four centuries. John’s disciples had been right in the middle of this remarkable move of God. Then abruptly, they weren’t." I thought it was a great exhortation for  Christian leaders, don't think of yourselves as irreplaceable. Safe enough for me to cite, I'm a follower, not a leader

The next day I saw an article by Scott Rodin echoing the same thoughts – and citing Phil 2:7, how Jesus made himself nothing, taking the role of a servant. I've been pondering this, and was further struck by what Gordon Fee writes in a commentary on Philippians "The concern is with divine selflessness: God is not an acquisitive being, grasping and seizing, but self-giving for the sake of others." The awesomeness of God's selflessness awes me anew, and I realize this is a principle for all believers. If God is selfless, and salvation is becoming like God, we must then become selfless, and it is only our own folly or pride or brokenness that makes this feel frightening to us.

Yes, this is archaic awesomeness, terrifying in its implications, but we can and ought to have faith in the faithful God of the New Covenant, who is more committed to making us who we ought to be than we are ourselves.

Wild and crazy promises

Psalm 91 sounds quite clear. "If you say 'the LORD is my refuge,' and you make the Most High your dwelling, no harm will overtake you, no disaster will come near your tent. For he will command his angels concerning you, to guard you in all your ways."

 Plain and simple. Commit yourself to God and nothing will ever go wrong. Is that really what it says?

 Satan used these verses to tempt Jesus. " Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. 'If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written: " 'He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’"

 "Don't put the Lord your God to the test," Jesus replied, quoting another Scripture.

 Did Jesus think of Psalm 91 again when he prayed in the garden of Gethsemane? There he was, having given himself to God, not putting God to the test but doing what he was supposed to do. Wasn't it time to claim the promise -- "no harm will come to you, the angels will watch over you." But he did not, he said "Not my will, but yours be done."

 Paul adds one more wrinkle to interpreting the promises. "For no matter how many promises God has made, they are 'Yes' in Christ." Jesus brings the fulfillment of the promises. The promise that no harm will come to you if you give yourself to God? That is the promise that Jesus came, died and rose again, guaranteeing us eternal life, and ushering us into the Kingdom as God's adopted children. That is the optic for understanding the promises, the wild and crazy truth awaiting us.

Prominence and humility

“We all want to finish well, but so many of us do not. Why? Because we too easily cherish our roles in the Great Wedding more than the Wedding itself. This is why John the Baptist must become our mentor.”

These words from Jon Bloom struck me this morning. He goes on. “For the past year John had blazed across Judea like a shooting star, the first real prophet in Israel for four centuries. John’s disciples had been right in the middle of this remarkable move of God. Then abruptly, they weren’t. The surge moved past them to Jesus. Of course it was wrong to be envious of the Messiah. But still, how could their beloved rabbi — and they with him — suddenly be relegated to the periphery after all that God had done through them?”

In Bloom’s retelling of the story (John 3:25-30), John looks on his disciples with compassion. He understood their conflict — sincere godly ambition for the kingdom, and selfish ambition to have prominent roles in it. “This was a moment of unraveling for them, of heart exposure.” Then John explains “the bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine and it is now complete. He must become greater, I must become less.”

I was reading something yesterday about Christian leadership as stewardship, how the Christian leader should be a servant of all, and willing to be least. Bloom is hitting the same theme. “When the blessed Lord grants one a role to play, one must perform it faithfully but never grasp it. The role is not the reward. The Lord is the reward.” 

I too have a mixture of ambition for the kingdom, and ambition to have a prominent role in it. But we all have a prominent role -- adopted children of our heavenly Father (Gal 4:6) personally welcomed by Jesus our reigning elder brother (Hebrews 2:11) But it is God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit who really have the prominent role. May we remember that.

Jon Bloom's book, Things Not Seen.  (free to download to your computer or device). 

Faith and reality

Rick Warren writes "Faith is not denying reality. Faith is facing reality without being discouraged by it."

I say "Amen, bro!" Faith is hard when life comes at you. You're tempted to think God can't be there or else this mess would never have happened. But the promises of God are not predictions we'll have a trouble free existence. The promises are what we cling to when trouble comes.

My identity in God

In light of God's truth, what should I believe about myself?

 I believe that by God's grace I have been chosen, imperfect as I am, to be a member of God's family and to have a significant role in his Kingdom. He has chosen me and takes on himself the complicated task of qualifying me for this. I will pursue this calling in relationship to God, opening my heart and laying bare my soul with its imperfections to him. He knows about them already, and has chosen me anyway. I believe that his grace in my life is bigger than my shortcomings. I can lay my longings and frustrations, both good or evil, before him, and experience his peace, even when the good longings are not yet met and the evil longings have not yet gone away. I will continue in this faith I have learned, to walk in emotional honesty with God and seek his peace in my difficulties. The peace of pleasant circumstances is good when it happens but cannot be relied upon. This same grace and calling I rejoice in is also given to my brothers and sisters. So I will not disbelieve in their calling when I perceive them as imperfect. I will seek to understand their hearts, consider that I as well as they might be imperfect in the issue at hand, and pray for them that God helps them in their weaknesses, as I pray that God helps me.

 I see this in many Scriptures, here are three:

 Paul's thorn in the flesh (2 Cor 12). God did not remove it but said his grace was sufficient. God doesn't promise that he will always remove problems and distressing circumstances from our lives, sometimes he leads us through them.

"Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ. If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer." 2 Cor 1:3-6

Jeremiah's promise of the New Covenant (Jer 31:31-34). God's people didn't keep the first covenant, but rather than write off his people, God rewrites the covenant so they will keep it. God's commitment to his people endures in spite of their shortcomings.

How good and pleasant it is

How good and pleasant it is when brothers and sisters come together in unity,
Giving thanks for one another, making new treasures from old memories.
May I remember this day when my brokenness surfaces again,
When I ought to know better but don't.
May I remember this day when my brother, my sister, disappoint me.
May I be patient as you are, O God, shining the light of truth and grace on our messy mix,
Good and evil jumbled together.
O God, who will receive whatever harvest we do yield,
And cast into the fire whatever thorns have choked us,
Give me wisdom to see and be like you today.

Praying the Psalms

I didn't take naturally to the Psalms. They are poetry, and I'm a prose kind of guy. Logic and reason -- left to myself I'll head for Paul's epistles time after time.

Plus being poetry, they are kind of raw. Lord, I'm all alone here, why aren't you doing anything to help? My enemy is really bad, and I've been good. Make his kids into homeless orphans.

But in the last few years, I realize how much I need the rawness. I am pretty emotional too, I just hide it. Angry and upset? Don't express it, maybe it will go away. While not acting out my negative emotions is a valuable skill in social life, pretending they aren't there when I'm alone with God is not. God has used the Psalms to teach me when I pray to say what's on my heart, not what I believe should be on my heart. Because when I express my heart to God, he helps calm me much more than pretending I don't really feel that way can calm me.

And the Psalms, although raw and honest, are not just ranting.  They can go from "Lord, don't you care that I'm all alone here," to "You are the great one we all hope for" in just one or two verses. (See Psalm 22:1-3).

When I'm feeling something that isn't right, pretending I don't feel it doesn't help much.
Lecturing myself why I shouldn't feel it is only slightly better.
Laying it before God and saying "help me with this feeling" works much better.

Running to win is a good thing

God must like "it's not quite so simple" moments. He makes so many of them. I had another one today.

Saturday I quoted Ann Voskamp --
What you really wanted is to be extraordinarily, obviously, good at this. At this mothering thing. You wanted to be the best at this. You wanted to take the podium and gold medal in mothering — not take a million timeouts behind some locked bathroom door, turn on the water so no one hears you sobbing at what a mess this whole shebang is, and how you’d like to run away. 
This summed up what I feel so often -- I want to win the prize, to be the best, to be honored and acclaimed. Obviously pride -- I'm not the hero, God is. I should lay aside mydesire to be the center and graciously take my humble place wherever he puts me, acknowledging I need his help.

Then this morning I start thinking, "But wait. Doesn't Paul say we should run to win the prize?" I go looking and I find the reference, 1 Corinthians 9:24. What is he saying? In the beginning of the chapter he defends his rights as an apostle, and adds that even though he preaches the gospel without charge, he is not obligated to preach without charging. He is obligated to preach, but he supports himself preaching as a gift. Then he says although he is free, he makes himself a slave to many, to win as many as possible. He works hard at addressing different people in different ways to maximize his impact. This is when he says only one runner wins the prize, and we should be the one who runs to win.

"But wait, Paul," I want to say. "Haven't you read about the New Covenant, how our competency is not in ourselves but comes from God, how we have this treasure in earthen vessels, how our hope is not in ourselves but Christ in us?" Not only has Paul read that, he wrote that. So running to win the prize doesn't mean going back to us being the hero of our story. It has to mean training and working hard at recognizing God in us, highlighting the treasure, not the earthen vessel, reminding ourselves again and again we hope in him, not in ourselves.

So let us train and run in this course of honoring God in what he does in us and through us, celebrating what he has made of us and makes of us rather than who we are in ourselves.

The Gospel for Mother's Day

I do follow popular blogger Ann Voskamp, despite being well outside her target demographic. She wrote a good one this morning: What every mother can do for herself this Mother's Day. She exposes the dilemma of a mother afraid she hasn't been good enough:
What you really wanted is to be extraordinarily, obviously, good at this. At this mothering thing. You wanted to be the best at this. You wanted to take the podium and gold medal in mothering — not take a million timeouts behind some locked bathroom door, turn on the water so no one hears you sobbing at what a mess this whole shebang is, and how you’d like to run away.
Yes, that is what  I want, to take the podium and gold medal in what I do, to be the best and most famous. Why? Pride. I want to be the hero of my story. That's what led to Adam and Eve's fall.

But there is also brokenness -- because of Adam and Eve's fall, because we don't innately know God like we should, we miss knowing how much he is willing and able to be the hero of our story, so we think it is up to us. If I don't do it, who will. 

But the Gospel says we are not on our own. We have all fallen short, don't measure up, failed at being great and legendary and one of a kind. Like Paul wrote,
"all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God," (Rom 3:23)
But that's not all -- there's more to God's story: "all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus." (Rom 3:24). We are justified, made adequate, redeemed, invited into a life where God makes so much more of us than we can make of ourselves.

As Ann V says:
What every mother wants, her most unspoken need —  is a truckload of Grace.
Grace that buries her fears that her faith wasn’t enough, and that her faults were too many.
Grace that washes her dirty wounds and wounds the devil’s lies.
Grace that says she doesn’t have to try to measure up to anyone else because Jesus came down — and He measures her as good enough, as worthy enough, as loved more than enough.
Same for us, gentlemen: God offers grace to bury our fears that we aren't enough, can't be tough and strong enough, in control enough to make it all work. God offers capacity when we don't have capacity enough, God offers strength for our weakness.

My prayers

It dawned on me today that God might find my prayer life rather annoying. He invites me to come because he loves me and knows I need his inspiration, comfort and strength. But often I go to God thinking I only need him because of this sudden problem in my life. If he would just fix that, I'd be happy and go back to not needing him more. Cause I basically have "normal life" under control, it is only these crises when I need his help.
How shortsighted my heart is. Open my eyes, Lord, to see your great willingness for me to draw near, and my great need to draw near.

The moon

Shining silvery light in our darkness. In itself sterile rock, but reflecting solar glory to us when the sun is hidden from view. The moon is like a parable of the spiritual life -- can we faithfully reflect God's light and love around us? 

Isaiah calls us to shine his light
“Arise, shine, for your light has come,
    and the glory of the Lord rises upon you.
See, darkness covers the earth
    and thick darkness is over the peoples,
but the Lord rises upon you
    and his glory appears over you.
Nations will come to your light,
    and kings to the brightness of your dawn."

Paul also suggests the same image in 2 Corinthians 3:18 
    "And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit."

Two thoughts

1) "The joy of the Lord is my strength." Nehemiah 8:10. In context, Nehemiah is telling the people not to grieve as they hear the law being read, but to rejoice. How can one rejoice when the law is read? You can rejoice in the Gospel, but in the law? Maybe we don't understand the law rightly to think of it as just what we're supposed to do or not do. The Torah also shows the mighty God making covenants and rescuing his people, that is certainly "rejoice-able."

2) The title "Lord of Hosts" reflects God's power. But what do the hosts of angels add to the power of Almighty God? Nothing, really. Maybe "Lord of Hosts" really ought to be a sign of God's gracious willingness to give lesser beings significant roles in his plans.

Commandments and Grace

The other day I read through the passage of God giving the Ten Commandments to Moses (Exodus 19, 20). I felt puzzled, if God is a God of grace, not of law, why did he reveal these commandments so dramatically? As I read, the second commandment frightened me. "for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me" ((Exodus 20:5). But verse 6 had a greater promise than the threat in verse 5. " but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments." ((Exodus 20:6), so I saw even in these commandments there is an emphasis on grace.

Then I turned to 2 Corinthians, where Paul talks about the new and old covenants. "He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. Now if the ministry that brought death, which was engraved in letters on stone, came with glory, so that the Israelites could not look steadily at the face of Moses because of its glory, transitory though it was, will not the ministry of the Spirit be even more glorious? If the ministry that brought condemnation was glorious, how much more glorious is the ministry that brings righteousness!" (2 Corinthians 3:6-9). How glorious, God gives us the Spirit, and writes the law, not with his finger on stone tablets, but with his spirit on our hearts.

I perceived and could rejoice that God had given his commandments -- I know I have longed for things I was not meant to have, things it is impossible to have. It is God's law that showed me I should say "no" to those desires. And having said "no," I rejoice in the grace that enables me to say "no," that assures me that I don't have to have what I want to be happy. "For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to everyone. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age," (Titus 2:11-12).