Tuesday, May 31, 2011

We Shall be Changed

Have you ever noticed that, in the Bible, when God shows up, He never comes during benevolent sunshine or sweet gentle rain? He appears to Moses as a burning bush, He precedes the Israelites as towers of smoke and flame, and He promises to return as storm and thunder. God, in His natural state, if He can be said to have such a thing, booms and rattles this world with terrible power.

I have become accustomed, as have many, to thinking about God as a loving gentle Jesus, a forgiving shepherd, a humble servant. And He was all of these, of course. But I need to remember that, when His work here was complete, He returned home and resumed His godhead, where He picked up again His power. He promises to return in His full splendor as triumphant warrior, commander in heaven and on earth, no longer meek and mild.

God became man once, but only for a short while. He remained God both before, during, and after that experience. He remains God today and forever: terrible God, marvelous God, earthshaking God. He created men originally destined to share His glory, then redeemed them to assure it. He became like us for a little while so that we could know His real self forever.

We know no reference point for this in our experience. That's why we sometimes get stuck on Jesus' sweetness and go no further. We can understand that part of Him, but that part does not characterize God alone. He says that He is coming back to the sounds of celestial trumpets and thunderous earthquakes in rising blazes and that, in that instant we will be changed. He will not change, we will. He will remain mighty, and we will join Him in His might.

The day that Jesus returns, if my imagination can do any of this justice, will resemble more than anything else a fairy tale or a disaster movie: big and marvelous and terrible. But the end comes out much more than happy. I will not only be saved; I will be changed to glory, a glory I will share with God.

We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed, in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will all be changed. 1Corinthians 15:51-52

Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Cheese should not Stand Alone

Most people know a little about King Solomon. They probably know that he solved a dispute between two quarreling women by offering to divide a baby between them. They may know that he was King David's son and successor and that he built the first temple in Jerusalem. Some may remember that he married hundreds of women, most of whom did not follow his God, and that his good-intentioned love for them eventually corrupted his life and reign. Solomon, the man who reigned over a magnificent kingdom and possessed more wisdom than any other living human, ended his life having fallen into despair and cynicism. And all because he took his eye off the ball.

Solomon made a marriage alliance with Pharaoh, king of Egypt; he took Pharaoh's daughter in marriage and brought her to the city of David until he finished building his house and the House of God and the wall of Jerusalem all around. However, the people brought offerings upon high places, for a house for the Name of God had not yet been built in those days.--1Kings 3:1-2

Pharaoh's daughter was the first pagan Solomon brought home, but far from the last. Throughout his life, they came in a steady, unending stream. When he'd accumulated a few hundred, he must have been rather distracted. By the time they'd reached 700, he would have needed all his wisdom just to get out of bed in the morning. But sheer numbers did not defeat him. His defeat lay in that he had no place to bring them, no place for them to come unerringly to pray, no place that stood as a physical connection the God that governed his life and to whom they, as his wives were responsible. Lacking a mortar and stone temple, they worshiped at the only places they knew, the high places where they had once worshiped pagan gods of wood and stone. Their intentions were probably good, but they lacked firm guidance.

Solomon's wives are worth considering as we structure our own lives of worship. Whatever a personal prayer place looks like--chair, or corner or window by the sun, we have a need to be grounded in a larger place, too, a place where God visits congregations. I learned a long time ago that God shows me different things alone than He does in company with others, and I need both.

Also important, though, is for that group to be similarly grounded in a larger context. It does us no good to affiliate with a group of believers that shares no sense of responsibility to other groups, other churches. Only God stands alone. He made us to stand side-by-side in His sight, and provides the structures within which we can do it. Like the children's rhyme, Farmer in the Dell, that ends in disarray when the cheese stands alone, we need to hold each others' hands.

Two Faced

The bonds we have to God were forged before creation. Everything we know about Him or experience of Him stems from the ties He forged with us before time began. He even specifies the nature of that relationship; it is exclusive, subservient, and reverent. No one is exempt, even pagans.

Oh, Belshazzar, you have not humbled yourself, though you know all this. Instead, you have set yourself up against the Lord of heaven. You had the goblets from His temple brought to you and you and your nobles, your wives, and your concubines drank wine from them. You praised the gods of silver and gold, of bronze, iron, wood, and stone, which cannot see or hear, or understand. But you did not honor the God who holds in His hand your life and all your ways.--Daniel 5:22-23

So one of our faces must be turned to God at all times, and that face must worship, recognize our lowliness before Him, and rejoice in it. But, like Janus, we have a second face, one with which we look at one another. That relationship differs substantially from the first. With that face, we love and empathize. We recognize our common human lot, our frailty, and our equality before God. We are as like one another as we are different from God. He knows this, of course, and explained it in simple terms.

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself.--Matthew 22:37-38

Jesus explains these as two commands because they are. The first command governs our first face, the one turned toward God. The second tells us to love each other through our frailties, remembering that we all the same before Him. God instituted this double standard from the beginning. Love and worship God because He is not like us. Love and forgive men because we are all alike.

Friday, May 27, 2011

So Big

No one is like You, Oh Lord, and Your name is mighty in power. Who should not revere You, Oh King of nations? This is your due.--Jeremiah 10:6

The Son is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of His being, sustaining all things by His powerful Word. After He provided purification from sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.--Hebrews 1:3

Power, glory, majesty, authority. These are your due and my purpose to acknowledge. Worship is what happens daily in the heavenlies and what is supposed to happen daily here on earth. Our purpose, more than anything else, is to know, and to say, and to sing your praises. Instead, I hardly see them. You put me in this world to see You and I see the world. You gave me life to see You and I see life.

When my children were small, I would take their hands and raise their arms high above their heads, exclaiming, "So big!" You do that, but I am the child and You hold my arms up, hoping I will eventually get it. You, God, are so big.

So how do I acknowledge that You are big today? I have to concentrate not on living, but on You. When I clean or cook or write, it is by Your grace and permission. I have no power You did not give me. Your power. Your honor. Your strength. Your wisdom. You are big, Oh God. So Big.

I am the Lord, the God of all Mankind. Is anything too hard for me?--Jeremiah 32:27.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Mirror, Mirror

I have a bad habit of measuring someone's degree of self-centeredness by the number of times they use the word 'I' in normal conversation. As an observational tool, it works pretty well, but improper when used as a method of judgment. It probably stems from teaching junior high school long enough to note that almost any early teen's favorite subject is themselves, and from encouraging them to note the importance of other people in it. It probably also indicates my own weakness in this area and, like former smokers, I react strongly to the smell of second hand sin.

That is one of the reasons David of Israel impresses me so much. 2Samuel 22 and 23 captures his last inspired words, the ones in which he enumerates his achievements as king and, characteristic of a man after God's own heart, he speaks nothing of his own accomplishments. He mentions little about Goliath, or of his own mercy and respect for his predecessor Saul, of his rescue of the ark of the Covenant, or any of his battle victories. He does spend a great deal of time singing the praises of his 37 mighty men. Of himself, he discusses his own sin, specifically that of pridefully counting his people. David remembered this vividly. God punished him harshly for that pride, striking down seventy thousand men with a plague, a punishment that demonstrated his sin by reducing exactly what he had elevated in committing it.

More importantly, though, in these final words, David glorified his God. He finished the story about the census by explaining how God redeemed his sin in that the whole ordeal ended when David purchased the threshing floor that eventually became the site of the new temple. The story David wanted ultimately to tell was not his own. He wanted to tell his God's. David saw little of himself in his mirror. He saw the reflection of God's glory.

The Lord lives! Praise be to my Rock! Exalted be God, the Rock, my Savior!--2Samuel 22:47

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Weighing In

We all live with a confounding disconnect between human actions and the results those actions produce. Predators often prosper while saints suffer. We chalk the injustice up to a fallen world and believe that You will eventually make things right, and in the abstract that works for us. When it comes to our own little world, however, uneven scales, even those You promise to level, do not always consent to wait. When our son is sent home from school for a fight he entered to protect his small friend, or our spouse fired when he stood against an unethical business practice, or our neighbor stolen from by the wastrel she took in, Your promise sometimes pales.

And the inequity tangles even more while we try to understand how we are to act in the face of the world's perversion, other people's failures, and our own sin. In short, when I act according to what You have shown me is right, I want to see results that reinforce my actions. When I work, I want reward, when I love, I want to be loved back. But it just doesn't work that way.

You warn me about this when You emphasize the importance of godly character. You gave a promise without specifying times or places, then offered to stand between me and my disappointments, saying, "Do it for me." You tell me to follow You not because anyone to whom I display love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, and self-control will respond with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, or self-control in return, but because You will respond that way. In fact, You already have.

We are not trying to please men, but God, who tests our hearts. --1 Thessalonians 2:4

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Little Death, Big Life

I will not be the first to observe that life is a series of little deaths. I remember once hearing a young woman on a radio program reflecting on her potential choices for a husband. She, like most young women, held a picture of her wedding day in a special place...the white dress, flowers, music, and above all, the smile of her Prince Charming promising happiness evermore. Then she looked around, even between the stars she still held in her eyes, and saw that if she wanted a husband, she would by necessity marry just another sinner. He would hurt her carelessly, he would ignore her unintentionally, he would just mess up. A bit of her dream died that day, and when she finally did marry, every time one of those little hurts came, another bit would die.

In a way, I am glad that this is mankind's common lot. It means that my own disappointments, my own little deaths are not unique to my stumbling life. It also means that life makes more sense in the context of the cross. You died, too. You died in little halting bits like we do, then in one incomprehensibly grand bit, right at the end. And they hurt You, too. You, however, did several things I cannot. First, and most importantly, Your death threw open a door to life, a life you demonstrated almost immediately by walking out of your grave. You also explained it all on the cross. Yes, you did, and I almost missed it. You told me and everyone listening exactly what You were doing.

In fact, you shouted it--"My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" This was not a cry of desperation or abandonment like so many Christian commentators have posed. They all got it wrong. Of course they were never young Jews who hung their hopes on the Old Testament. If they had been Jews, like the crowd that surrounded You that day, they would have immediately recognized your words as the plea they had already learned by heart, the plea we know from the first line of Psalm 22, the sweet song of desperation, of little deaths, that became salvation.

In saying "My God, my God," you cemented forever in their minds the connection between what You were doing and its ultimate purpose. You did not have to say it the rest. They already knew it:

He has not despised or disdained the suffering of the afflicted one... before those who fear you I will fulfill my vows... All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the Lord and all the families of the nations will bow down before him--those who cannot keep themselves alive...They will proclaim His righteousness to a people yet unborn--for He has done it. --Psalm 22: 24, 27, 29, 31

Oh, we will have the little deaths and they will still hurt. But You went from Calvary to sit in heaven, and we will, too. This is hard to remember during the dying, but You did, and said so. Then You punctuated it with Your final assurance: "It is finished."

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Fruit of my Knees

This, then, is how we know we belong to the truth, and how we set our hearts at rest in His presence whenever our hearts condemn us. For God is greater than our hearts, and He knows everything.--1 John 3:19-20

Part of the life I am called to before You insists upon humility and repentance. I must be constantly aware of my own sin and failure so that You can share Your life with me. But you are calling me to humility, not defeat. There is a big difference.

Humility brings me to my knees, confessing and understanding again how I sin, and why, and how to find enough courage and honesty to admit it fully. The repentance that must follow comes as a not only required, but natural, outflow of my acknowledgement of sin and love for You. I have done an evil thing before You, but You want so much to see me restored, that You climbed up on the cross and died. Now, having done that, You stretch out constant arms to welcome me home. That's the difference. Humility and repentance come to fruit in the lonely dark, but their world turns ever toward dawn.

Not so with condemnation. When the recognition of sin is followed by "I'm irrevocably stupid," or "I'll never get this right," or "You have forgotten me," or "I give up," then something else is at work. In the times that dark follows dark and the hammer comes down so hard that I think that I not only will die, but should, then I have forgotten You. You have promised a way out, always. You give me or allow in my life exactly what I need to achieve godliness, either for myself or for someone else, always.

I do not need to worry about this. I do need, however to monitor my repenting thoughts. I must condemn my sin and the author of it, whether it be the enemy of my soul, or my own flesh. A sweet little one told me once about one of his favorite movies and how, in it, the character exclaimed that God is "bigger than the boogie man." Whether our boogie man is another man who tempts us to evil, or spiritual devilry, or our own desire, You are always bigger.

You do not condemn those who love You. You save them. The fruit of our knees comes as a saving light right from You.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Location, location

Everyone who hears my words and acts on them is like a wise man who built his house on a rock. The rains came and the wind blew and it did not fall. But he who hears my words and does not act on them is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rains came and the wind blew and it fell with a crash. --Matthew 7: 24-28

Nobody wants their house to fall down around them, so Jesus, as He drew His Sermon on the Mount to a close, said essentially 'Build it on me.' He'd already been talking to them for a good long time and these were the last recorded words He said that day. Their position as final thoughts makes them important as a summary, but also begs the question as to exactly what they summarize.

I learned a long time ago that I have to take Scripture as a whole--examining passages individually for their finer points, but looking at them in context to see their larger application. So, closeup first. Jesus is saying that only when we not only hear, but live by what He teaches will our lives stand the test that are sure to come. I like that. Nice and simple.

But what teachings does this example summarize? Let's see--the sermon starts in chapter 5 with the beatitudes.

Blessed are the poor in spirit...Blessed are they those who mourn...Blessed are the meek...Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness...Blessed are the merciful...Blessed are the pure in heart...Blessed are those who are persecuted...

Jesus outlines the progression of His followers' lives, from understanding of sin, to mourning over it, to submission to His will, to a transformed life, and finally the privilege of suffering for Him. Then He moves on to say that His followers, the ones He just described in the beatitudes, are to be lights in the world, people who do more than just obey the written law. He expects those who say they love Him to go beyond what church leaders have both taught and exampled.

The next passages define what that extra effort looks like. Jesus expects His followers to go to lengths to make peace with enemies, to remain pure of heart, mind and body, to live in harmony and with commitment, to always tell the whole truth without hedging, to reach out to everyone with kindness and compassion, to be as perfectly human as He is perfectly God, to give generously, to pray with Him rather than the world in mind, and to fast only unto Him.

If we are able to do these things, we will also automatically do more. We will be storing up treasures in heaven and will live without succumbing to worry, not unduly judging others. He warns us that this will not be easy, that the this road is narrow and populated by wolves and robbers. Then comes the bit about the house on the rock.

You see what I mean? Jesus used the last image of the house because a house is where we put all our stuff and spend much of our time. We come home for refuge and for rest. In the whole first part of His sermon, He detailed what we should be storing in our cupboards and tucking under our bed. He wants us to hang generosity on the wall and light the candle of kindness. This house is not to be built with lip service. Every piece must come from the catalog He outlines beginning in chapter 5.

I once knew of a couple who spent every spare penny buying a house that they couldn't afford to paint once they moved in. That cannot happen with the house of our lives. Jesus did not subscribe to the realtors' old saying, "Location, location, location." His house is not built from the outside, but from the inside.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Create in Me

I have a wonderful Jewish Old Testament called the Stone Tanach that I like to read to bring an immediacy to the ancient stories that my Christian Bible sometimes lacks. For instance, it quickens creation by personifying God: "And God called to the light, "Day" and to the darkness, He called "Night". I can hear the very voice of God in those words and it brings a fluttering rush that makes me wish I were there to see it.

Of course, this book is also written by men with prejudice and interpretation and, while they stop short of changing the words, sometimes paint with broad strokes in their interpretation. This morning, I was reading about David. Like Moses and Abraham, David is revered by the Jews. I don't blame them. David, a man after God's heart, is everything I would like to be. He is passionate, loyal, brave, humble, joyful, loving, and more. He also brings an honesty and brokenness that never leaves the shepherd he once was completely behind. A good guy. Not a perfect guy, but a good one. Unfortunately, the Jewish interpreter who wrote the footnotes revered him a bit too much.

This morning, David was hanging around on his rooftop and spotted Bathsheba, the wife of one of his commanders, next door taking a bath. In that moment, David liked being the king. He called for her and slept with her, then later learned she was pregnant. With her husband at the battle front, that left him in a pickle, so he called her husband back, tried to get him to sleep with his wife so the child could be presented as his own and when that didn't work, put him in harm's way so that he was killed.

All of this looks pretty despicable to you and I, but not to the Jewish interpreter. Evidently, Jewish law allowed David to do pretty much everything he did. Bathsheba was not technically married because commanders routinely gave their wives divorce papers before they left for war so that they would be free to remarry right away if the men went missing in action. Also, well, David was the king, and when it came to women, it was good to be the king. He had a right to Bathsheba. In addition, when David told Bathsheba's husband to go home and sleep with his wife and he refused, he was guilty of insubordination and deserved death.

Not a bad deal. Technically, David had a proper reason to do everything he did. But he knew better. Technicality notwithstanding, David knew he did wrong in God's eyes, even if he had squeaked by before men. This is what makes him a man after God's heart. Squeaking by would not do for David because God does not accept it. God looks at actions, but does not stop there. He is not pleased when we do the right thing for the wrong reasons.

So, in the end, I admire David for his bravery, for his tenderness, for his faithfulness and joyful praise, but I remember him most for his honest repentance. The wrong we do presents a greater danger, and reveals a more ruthless enemy, than any other battle. Real courage is looking our own sins square in the face and calling them exactly what they are. Thank you, David, for your example.

For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight...Create in me a pure heart, Oh God, and renew a steadfast spirit in me." Psalm 51:3,4,10

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Beyond the Math

You were so darned human. As I strain hard to touch Your divinity, I keep getting derailed by Your flesh and blood. Because my own humanity does not, in fact cannot, exist alongside perfect holiness, I just find Yours so hard to comprehend. My entire human experience reinforces a simple principle:

Humanity = Sin
God = No Sin

Yet You lived as both God and Man. Clearly, I am missing something.

I know You were human less because You walked and talked and bled than by what You felt. You knew compassion, sadness, hurt, joy, loneliness. Animals and insects bleed, but they do not know love. You did. And a long time ago, when You lifted a handful of dirt and breathed Yourself into it, You shared Your ability to experience more than pulse and muscle movement. You gave us a part of Yourself.

Emotion is important not because of itself, the shedding of tears or the unexpected smile, but because of its source. The God who walked with Adam in the cool of the day was not flesh and blood, but Adam knew His presence by the awareness it produced in him. You were that God then, You were that God on Calvary, and You still are.

You do not walk in the cool of my day, but You lend me the parts of Yourself I recognize, all the loving and all the compassion and all the longing. I reach out and risk to feel because You did, and You take my hand in the process. Your humanity is not like mine, but You use it to make me a way.

Son of God = Son of Man

Oh Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.--Matthew 23:37

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

First Light

I have wondered for a long time about how soldiers get ready for their days, the ones in which they know they will have to risk their lives in combat and during which they might die. The rest of us get up, brush our teeth, decide what to wear or what to have for breakfast, kiss our spouse, and go to work. Somehow, a solder has to rub sleep out of his eyes, shoulder his weapon, and prepare to fight for his life.

I have heard a few discussions about this, memories of times filled with bullets and explosions and blood. I have heard about days when the dead lay all around except for one. I have heard about the smell of spent shells and been asked to imagine the sound of the accumulated gunfire of a hundred men shooting at once, but I have never experienced anything even remotely like it. I do know, however, someone who has.

Israel's King David did not use a gun, but he did use spears and shields. And he also did something that few soldiers can: he found words for what he experienced.

Strangers are attacking me; ruthless men seek my life, men without regard for God. -Psalm 53: 3
See how they lie in wait for me! Fierce men conspire against me for no offense or sin of mine, O Lord--Psalm 59:3
Every soldier must at some time cry out just like David did. And I'm ashamed to say it, so do I, even though my lot is less dangerous and the price much lower. Some days, enemies just seem to crowd around and I can almost hear their spears rattle. On those days, though, I have to find solace in the same place David did.
Contend, O Lord, with those who contend with me; fight against those who fight against me. Take up shield and buckler, arise and come to my aid. Brandish spear and javelin against those who pursue me. --Psalm 35: 1-2a

And on those days, knowing that we do not have the final say as to who wins or loses, who lives or dies, there is only one place to look for real assurance.
Say to my soul, 'I am your salvation.' Psalm 35: 2b
Rest, soldier. Your battle may still rage, but the Victor fights beside you, and has already won.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Pleasant Places

It seems that days have a kind of landscape, one that I survey shortly after opening my eyes. Some rise abruptly, full of peaks and crags, rocky and harsh. On these days, I know I will have to face difficulties or conflicts. On some days, dense trees huddle in a sheltering darkness, close and occasionally dank. This happens when the day promises to fill with chores, fine in themselves, but impeding a higher view. While I am under them, I can't see the sky. But some days stretch clear and open, like a meadow or a ripe field. Their horizon stretches unbroken from compass end to end where even no clouds interrupt their serenity. On days like this, obligations can wait, and both mind and body have permission to drift slowly in contemplation of Your glory.

Today started out like a meadow. The only things of this world that crowded around were Your Word and a soft cover. The chimes blew gently, singing in the breeze. Morning birds called for their breakfast. You spoke sweetly to my heart about Your love.

Then the phone rang. Everything changed. Suddenly familiar trees sprang up like intractable weeds that I tried to push aside, but would not move. My rimless plain vanished like a mirage. Traffic noise drowned out the birdsong. A tractor muffled the chimes. I got up with heavy feet.

Later, pushing the lawnmower, trying to find You, I lifted my face for a moment. There, in the middle of what I perceived as forest, I could smell fresh cut grass. As I ducked beneath the branches, I noticed them round and full with apple blossoms. You called me to the trees again today, but made even them beautiful in Your sight.

Lord, you have assigned me my portion and my cup. The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places. Ps 16:5-6

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Counting Up

So many days start with lists of things to do, lists both physical and mental. But You reminded me today that, while I should busy myself and work during the day, my primary goal must remain finding You in all of it.

Frankly, piles of laundry do not inspire me toward heaven. Neither do the recyclables that need to be taken to the dump nor the floor that needs to be scrubbed. I can do them as work necessary in a fallen world and use them to demonstrate faithfulness, but they take a secondary place, much like Martha's kitchen duties: worthy because someone has to do them, but not the stuff of glory.

My days also encompass other activities, however. Some I can choose. The house needs to be cleaned, the dishes done, the garbage taken out, and the lawn mowed, but I do have choices regarding the rest. I do not need to grow all my own vegetables. I do not need to cook everything from scratch. I do not even need to write this. The life You have chosen for me makes all these optional. So, after the laundry is washed, dried, and folded, the refrigerator cleaned out, and the litter boxes emptied, with which other activities do I fill my day?

Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom. Psalm 90:12

You want me to choose whatever else I do wisely, not frivolously. You want me to count each one. You want me to raise my hand and my heart simultaneously and find You in my choices. So, what does that look like? Well, I may not have to grow all my own vegetables, but I find You when I see flowers burst open and sweeten a summer afternoon or when I pick a tomato from a branch heavy with fruit. I may not have to prepare all my meals from scratch, but I remember You when I feel a silky bread dough move under my hands while I knead it or smell deep garlic and cream swirl into a satin sauce. I may not need to run a day care center, but I recall Your love when I hold a child. I may not have to make my living as a writer, but I see Your truth rise out of the lush perfection in rightly placed words. So, I can choose to plant a flower or cook or babysit or write and use the time You have given to remember You.

In the end, you require some measure of drudgery and take pleasure that I am willing to do the mundane in your name, but then you make time for finding Your glory as well. I can use my spare time to go to Disneyworld or read drivel and You will not condemn me for it, but You deliver much more, a taste of You and Your glory, if I choose to number my days.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Coming Home

But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and blessed him. The son said to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son." But the father said to his servants, " Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let's have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found." --Luke 12: 20-24

I live by necessity in two states--that of the humiliated repentant and that of the forgiven. You constantly forgive as I come to You humiliated and humble, but You also constantly rejoice over my restoration. I know at once sweet misery and welcome comfort. You live in me to the extent I open up the rooms of my soul for You to clean.

I may choose to live in the pig lot, but You will not. You wait patiently in Your courtyard for me, scanning the horizon for my return, looking for the smallest indication that I may be coming home. And the homecomings occur moment by moment as I acknowledge my sin before You.

Isn't then the most sensible request that to see all of my sin? After all, I can't come home, can't get anywhere near you, while sin still clings to me like sewage. This has to be the real joy of living in a fallen world--the repeated coming home, the collapse into your delighted arms, the restoration in Your overflowing grace. A state of humiliation before You is better than separation from You. You forgive quickly and completely and forever. This is the new morning You promise, full of mercy.

If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness--1 John 1:9

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The First Thing

Last evening, I watched a Bible lesson in progress. Our friends Thad and Kim visited with their six little boys and we watched the children tumble over one another for about eight hours, delightful as puppies. At some point, one of the boys asked his dad whether he could go outside and shoot his BB gun. Dad told him to put on his shoes first. Young Aiden had a few more things to say about what he wanted to do next and how, something about a brother and a bullseye. Dad, however, simply told him, " How about you obey me first, and then we can talk about the rest?" Aiden did.

That's what You tell me. Every morning, events lay at my feet right next to my slippers. I have things I must clearly do, clear as putting on my shoes. These activities, small or large, encompass your clear instructions to me and I must simply do them without embellishment. When the phone rings, or mail arrives in my inbox, You are speaking in subtle whisperings, saying, "I love you. Just look at what I am going to let you do for me today."

I don't have look far. You may not put the subtleties of Your character or the intricacies of Your Word on the lower shelf, but You leave me no doubts as to what activities You require. You tell me simply and plainly. I just have to look at the lamp you have lit and walk.

This is love for God, to obey His commands--1John 5:3
Your Word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path--Psalm 119:105

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Who Can See the Wind?

A few years ago, our friend Virginia gave us some Westminster chimes. They hang outside all year, their long pipes ringing deep and round in all seasons. Last night, a gusty wind disturbed them--I could hear them through the open window-- and this morning, when, for the first time this year, dawn came gently enough to greet sitting outside in my favorite chair, the chimes hung silent. I found the clapper's string tangled in a nearby vine, and as I freed it, it struck the bells hard.

I could hear the sound they made, of course, rich and insistent, like an impatient call to church, but as I drew away my hands, I could feel its song, too, like something thick and fuzzy in the air around it, something that moved without substance, beyond sensory experience. I remembered that I heard once somewhere how, when Beethoven became deaf in the last days of his life, he would lay his head on his piano as he played it so, though he could not hear the music, he could feel its vibration through the soundboard. Today, those same vibrations came not only through the bells of my chimes, but into the air around them, real but invisible, impossibly alive without form or feeling.

The chimes remind me that our lives extend beyond what our sensory experiences register. Not one to think very often about otherworldly influences, spiritual beings like angels or demons, I don't usually recognize them when they pay us a call. Because they touch places not accessible to senses, I can't directly grasp their influence. Like subtle, indefinable warnings that someone is walking up behind me or a child is stealing a cookie from the jar in another room, I just know. Like the air changing around my chimes, like an invisible shallow breath, like the slow beat of life, I can't hold spiritual presences in my hand. I just have to trust the knowing.

The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them because they are spiritually discerned. --1Corinthians 2:13

Monday, May 9, 2011

Long Live the King

A lot of folks watched the royal wedding recently. I missed it, but am still fascinated by the whole concept of kings and princesses, crowns and curtsy. Modern kings kept all the pomp that fascinates, but have largely been stripped of what really makes them kings. Essentially, we don't mind bowing to them because it doesn't really mean anything. Kings still drape themselves in ermine, but they never lock weary wives in towers or whack off the heads of dastardly traitors anymore. Popes and presidents wield more real power. Kings may hold court, but no judgments occur there.

All of us have been raised in a democracy; we have no frame of reference for real monarchy. We do not know how to think as subjects. A real king commands and expects obedience without question. His proclamations may be righteous or evil. He may make them to rule properly to simply to amuse himself. The whole concept of bowing down and meaning it because if we don't, we will die, brings kingship into new light. A king commands and we obey. We must not only kneel, we must work, we must hand over money and property, we must hand over children, we must take up arms and risk our own lives. We do not vote about this. We get no say at all. Real monarchy breeds squalor, scheming, and rebellion. Still.

And men still want to be kings. You have known someone who held the scepter in your own life. In all probability, you helped hand it to them. I know I have. Then I learned what it meant to be ruled.

No man on earth can be a good king. We don't have the proper equipment. The best kings have occasional glimpses of brilliance, moments of justice and seasons of righteous victory. Goliath is still occasionally killed by a young David and Solomon still sometimes sees clearly enough to figure out that the baby needs to be divided, but no man can rule successfully over others.

You, Lord, knew that when You let the Israelites have the kings they begged for, and those kings turned out the only way they could have--badly. You gave us one King, the God and Man, Jesus Christ. And, while nominal royalty revels to chants of "Long live the King", all those earthly kings will die. You do not.

God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ. --Acts 2:36
Then Jesus came to them and said, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me."--Mathew 28:18

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Hallmark Mothering

Folks gotta love Hallmark, they really do. Hallmark makes a way for us to tell each other about subjects hard to express every day, like love and respect and commitment. I am grateful for them on days like this, when pink envelopes lie on my morning countertop, bearing sweet inscriptions and promising shy, otherwise unspoken sentiments.

Hallmark, unintentionally, also reminds me of shortcomings. I am human and easily slide into mothering errors, too often falling short of the loving mother cards describe. I have lost patience, judged too quickly, forgotten, ignored, and abandoned. Somehow, through it all, though, my sons and my fine forgiving husband love me back. Just like You, my sweet Father in heaven.

My own mother fell short, too, and probably hers, and down through the generations, ad infinitim. Mothers are as much examples of our fallen human condition as anyone else, but we do not surprise You. You brought us into the world as children so that we could understand the sweetness of simple, trusting love. Later, you allow us to mother and father so that we can understand Your own love for us. Here, in knowing You, lies the real grace not only in today, but in every day.

Thank you, boys, for your generous loving. Thank you, Hallmark, for helping them express it. Above all, thank you, Savior and Lord, for gifting men with the ability to love, to forgive, and to hope.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

What Goes Up

I seem to have forgotten how much of what I take for granted needs to be learned. We spent some sweet time at a playground yesterday, following a four-year-old and a seven-year-old in their aimless adventures and play. I discovered that I can still swing pretty well, and hold my own on a kid-powered merry-go-round, but am completely outclassed on both monkey bars and a teeter-totter.

In the case of the monkey bars, my major malfunction related directly to age and ability. I had the age, but the short ones had all the ability. The seesaw, however, limited us by the rules of physics, plain and simple. It doesn't work when a someone five-plus feet tall occupies one side and someone two feet tall the other. And then there is the question of weight and mass. There was no way that little four-year-old Emma could make her side go down while I sat firmly on the ground across from her. She kept pushing and squirming, believing that desire could overcome the laws of physical resistance, but it didn't work.

Eventually, we gave up and I switched places with a convenient two-year-old, confident that the substitution would solve our problem, but it didn't. We had satisfied the demands of physics, but not of experience. Little Emma, with her partner high in the air, pumped her legs mightily and propelled herself up and the toddler down, but they stuck there, unable go back over because the little guy just didn't know what to do. "Push!" we urged him, but he just looked confused.

We finally gave it all up as a bad job and moved on to something else, but I can't help but think now about how everything I know about life goes back to the principle of the seesaw. Fall, and get up. Give, and take. Push, and resist. Action and reaction. But there's more, and You showed me this morning how important this lesson really is.

As far as the East is from the West, He has removed our transgressions from us. --Psalm 103:12

When I sin, I have learned what will happen. The action of sin has a predictable result--punishment. Sometimes it gives a good whack immediately, and sometimes bides its time, but punishment never rests until it satisfies the laws of spiritual physics. Unless....

Sin can produce another reaction, one that heals rather than destroys, but I have to act. You gave me this happy news when You taught me that the laws of action and reaction include sin followed by repentance. That way, I can access Your promise to remove my sin to a place no one can see. Like the seesaw, my repentance tips the balance in perfect rhythm. Rather than the cycle completing in misery, it completes in restoration.

I have not always recognized it, but You always sit in the other side of the seesaw. You will punish when you must, but You much prefer to bless. My repentance is the just the push You need to do it.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Echoes of Eden

5AM. I open my eyes to a spreading blush on the horizon. The new day exhales gently through an open window. Two birds trill in bright duet, one with pert chirps in the foreground and another providing long notes of counterpoint behind it. The first tulips uncurl in emphatic cream and fire. A calico cat stretches and leaps from its bed in the flowerpot. Single notes ring deep and clear from the chimes, slow in even counts like Your footsteps falling one by one as you walk in the cool of the day. Even my own thoughts sing--sweet Hosannas rise in comforting repetition.

It feels like Eden. In a few moments, though, I know that a rude truck or a neighbor's bad muffler will break the serenade. Sometime later, the flowers will wilt and drop. Certainly, at just the opportune moment, the cat will reach up for a bird and assassinate it just for fun. And my own mind already drifts and clouds with self-concern.

Even as serene echoes of a world at one time surely perfect slide away like brilliant leaves escaping in swirls on a giggling brook, they both sadden and console. Once, in the beginning, this day's beauty would not have broken. Once, relentless entropy would not have held sway. I would rise from a fragrant bed confident and without regret. That will not happen today. While I yet live, it will never happen.

But in this moment, my world shares Eden's lovely memory. The pattern of creation still bears sweet marks of Your pronouncement that it is good and You still reach into it with glory. A rising sun lays its bright glow on the topmost branch of the old oak where a single blackbird sits as sentinel, red epaulets on both shoulders. I hold my breath. Don't go just yet. Stay with me a little longer. I watch the bird, only clean blue behind him, as raises his eyes to heaven, tips his head back, and opens his throat to sing.

God saw all that He had made, and it was very good. Genesis 1:31

Thursday, May 5, 2011


Some people plan ahead for almost everything they do, particularly important, potentially life-changing things. The Bible supports this--remember the ant, after all. But planning has pitfalls, too. Somewhere among the to-do lists, and appointment books, and the calendars lurks a growing dependence on the assurance that plans protect us, that they truly determine how life's circumstances work out.

We have this game we play when we are trying to make decisions. It's called the "What's the worst that could happen?" game. We puzzle through hard circumstances, then we spread them out before us and ask ourselves to identify the worst thing that could happen if we implemented the plan we'd just devised. This method works pretty well to pinpoint flaws in our thinking, and helps to prepare us in advance for adverse circumstances, but we rarely think of all eventualities. Often, circumstances take a completely different turn.

Advance thought and planning can help avoid some of life's pitfalls, but we just can't out-plan You. I can build strong-looking towers of preparations, but if I depend on them to take me to safety, without understanding Your dominion over them, the worst will happen. In practice, this whole dangerous procedure starts with me being what looks for all the world like faithful. I study my Bible and pray for guidance. I glean as much understanding as I can, then use what I learn to start sketching little flow charts. If I do this, then so-and-so might do that... This is where the ant starts dragging crumbs into the anthill for winter. Of course, Your character and commandments figure into the dragging. God's Word says this, so I have to do that... Eventually, I've laid out a road to go down and am confident that I am following you on it.

I keep forgetting this method's biggest flaw, however. I am not You. I can reason through some of your wisdom, but never all of it, which means that, unless I have heard Your audible word, when I lean too heavily on my tower, it will fall. And it crashes loud and hard. I get hurt, I get mad, I accuse You of failing me when I have simply not let You be the only thing You can be--perfect. I have substituted my plan for trust. I keep forgetting what You told me:

I have loved you...Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends. --John 15:13-15

Plans help, but I cannot value them more than You. They help organize thinking and even ease practical concerns, but they do not protect. You lay down your life for me. I can trust You.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Balance Beam

I want life to work out as perfectly as a math problem. I find soothing satisfaction in an equation, the perfect balance that exists on either side of an equal sign. I want work to equal reward as perfectly as 2+2=4. I want suffering to equal punishment as neatly as 3x3=9. It doesn't. In life, someone completely uninvolved often suffers for another's crime. A drunk driver kills an two-year-old. A retired mailman loses his life savings in a scam. A drug addict's baby is born with cerebral palsy. It's not fair.

How can I not bleed for these situations? I cry for justice, but it doesn't come. The two-year-old stays dead. The mailman moves in with his son. The baby lives in an institution. No punishment meted out to the criminal changes the results. Where is the balance? Not here.

Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. --Ephesians 6:12

OK, I get that part. Only by adding eternal measures to the light side of the scale does it balance. Only You can make it even. Hence, the cross--the one You climbed on, the same one you tell us to pick up and carry every day and, eventually, to climb onto ourselves. I try to do this, and sometimes can, but I am no hero. I am willing sometimes to suffer for someone else's sake, someone who has had a bad break, someone I love or even who loves me. I see their misfortune or sickness or grief, I look at You, and say, yes, I can do this for them.

But You did more. You suffered not for those who loved You or even knew You. You suffered for those who hated You, who intentionally hurt You, and not only for their sake. By suffering, you not only bought them a chance to take advantage of Your life, Your promise, Your presence, but you also did something way beyond that. You used your suffering to defeat evil in the heavenly realms. The earthquake that shook Calvary had its epicenter in hell. You transferred all power and the very foundations of the earth back to Yourself that day. Those You freed may or may not ever know it, but Evil certainly knows. And we are called to join You in both works, that of suffering and that of battling evil.

This is a sign to them that they will be destroyed, but that you will be saved--and that by God. For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on Him, but also to suffer for Him. --Phillipians 1:28-29

And this is the job You give to those who believe--to follow You to the cross and participate in what You do in the heavenly realms. I don't usually feel privileged to do this, but my cowardice sprouts from my own burden of sin. Suffering for what I did not do at the hands of those who neither know or care is how I follow You and by this you can, even through me, defeat evil. This is how You perfect the balance. I just have to trust and act.

Monday, May 2, 2011

In a Word

I sin. I believe I sin every day. The commandments, "You shall have no other gods before me, You shall not make idols, You shall not take the name of the Lord in vain, Remember the Sabbath Day and keep it holy, Honor your father and mother, You shall not commit murder or adultery, steal, bear false witness, covet"(Exodus 5) convince me easily enough of that, but then the New Testament brings additional conviction. "Greed amounts to idolatry." (Colossians 3:5) " Everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart." (Matthew 5:28) "Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer." (1John 3:15)

I'm a human being. Although I am supposed to care first for You, I don't. Welcome to my world: Me front and center. My world. My life. My desires. My pleasures. As long as I cling to them, all I get is them. A life that builds up myself but leaves the destruction of the people I love in its wake. Satisfied desires that eventually collapse upon themselves into dust. Pleasures that bloom for a moment, but wilt and rot way too soon.

I've learned to recognize the danger zone--that quick vitality of wanting, that surge of adrenalin that says, This time it will work. This will be fun. This will make me happy or easy or beautiful. That point is the recognition of temptation. If I don't run away screaming, closing my eyes and ears and mouth, binding my hands from action and my mind from imagination, that is the moment sin begins.

There is only one cure. Recognition of sin is not enough, not nearly enough. I must experience hurt, that is, real damage to my own pride and ego. Then I must finally see the horror that is my sin in Your eyes. I must understand sin's gravity and humiliate myself before You. I have to shed desire and pride like the rags they are and stand uncovered before You. Only after I am humiliated can I achieve humility. Humiliation signals the end of myself. Humility brings me properly before You.

Hurt followed by horror. Humiliation followed by humility. Not pretty thoughts to have on a beautiful, sunny morning. When I think about the sure struggle against sin that is before me, though, I remember that you have promised to help, to wait, and to catch me before I am ruined. You have done it already, more times than I can count. You will do it today because You never fail. So I cast myself into Your lap today, the only place of rest I know.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Stark Alternatives

I do not understand how it is possible to know You and not worship You. Knowing You includes comprehending, at least to some extent, Your perfect wisdom and justice. Knowing You includes acknowledging Your mighty power and infinite grace. Knowing You includes accepting Your covenant and sacrifice. You cannot be known apart from any of them, but if You are known, Your worthiness to be worshiped must follow and our awe for You is a forgone conclusion.

Observing this in myself, however, does not allow me to judge it in anyone else. I must take a merciful view of both sin and knowledge of God in other people and a strict view of it relative to myself. You have firmly satisfied and established salvation for everyone in perfect righteousness, but its judgment is for You alone. I cannot judge even my own salvation, much les any else's. I can, however, take responsibility for my own actions, for my attitudes, and for my obedience. Doing this, in fact, is mandatory.

It is often said that loving is Your first command. So it is. Loving You above all, which is the natural outgrowth of knowing You, then loving people. Take me captive, Lord. If I cannot cast myself into your lap, I have no hope for anything. My judgment of other men and my concern regarding my position before them is a grievous sin. Let me today care only about my position before You.