Thursday, June 30, 2011

Bruised but Still Sweet

Part of my daily morning prayer is that I might imitate Your example. You lived in the same world as I do, and equipped Yourself with the same senses and feelings and even the same basic abilities to act and think. And yet, you used them differently. You were, as the prayer details, mild, humble, chaste, zealous, charitable, and resigned. I am not.

Some days I know this more emphatically than others. Today, I know it well. Today, as I take yesterday's actions back into my arms and turn them over, I see all their imperfections as easily as I see bruises on apples. All my failings, marring what You designed using Your perfect self as a pattern, render a sweet, juicy, and deeply satisfying fruit into one full of soft spots destined for the compost heap.

I recall the prayer of repentance I learned as a child that included a sad litany of responsibility, "through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault..." The prayer speaks truly, and when You reveal my sin, I must thoroughly know it. However, some of today's melancholy curls up through my feelings, and, as I have become fond of reminding students, feelings are not facts.

I need to know this today as completely as I tried to teach them when writing a research paper. Then, they could not use opinion words like "wonderful" or "disgusting" or "boring" or especially "awesome." I made them step out of themselves long enough to discover what experts in their subject thought about it. In my case, the only expert in holiness is You.

If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has gone, the new has come.--2Corinthians 5:17
You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into wonderful light.--1Peter 2:9

I do have to look honestly and soberly at my failures, but I also have to remember what you made me to be and do. I am bruised today, but not yet ready for the compost bin.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Gospel of Jeff

Have you ever seen Jeff Dunham? He's a ventriloquist, a good one, and, although he could improve on some of his subject matter, his ability leaves me speechless. When he pretends to argue with one of his puppets, he demonstrates his best techniques, going back and forth so fast and with such perfect but invisible voice changes, that I can never tell that the sound isn't coming directly from the puppet itself. The actions of his puppets showcase his talents perfectly. Through them, he shows how he's just so good.

In the back of my mind, though, I know that the voices, no matter how many he uses or how quickly he changes them, all belong to Jeff. My eyes and ears may try to trick me into believing otherwise, but neither Walter, nor Peanut, nor Achmed speak on their own without his influence. They don't have a choice. I do.

God wants me to rely as much on His influence as the puppets rely on Dunham. He gives me everything I need to say and do things beyond my own abilities. And when I let Him, He gets the glory for what I do. Like Dunham, the credit for God's inspiration in my poor flesh goes directly back to Him. He created me to do this.

Bring my sons and daughters from the ends of the earth, everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.--Isaiah 43:7
Serve with the strength God provides so the He will be praised through Christ Jesus. To Him be the glory and power forever.--1Peter 4:11

I have an important advantage over Dunham's puppets; God lets me decide what I'm going to say and do. When I choose His power over my own, when I step aside and say to Him, "I want what You want. I am weak. I choose not to indulge myself, to talk about myself, to achieve for my own ends. I choose to bring You glory as You show Your power to the world when my mouth, and my hands, and my feet move in Your honor."

When I do this, I reflect my God in the way He intended. He made me in His image so that when people look at me, they see Him. The ME I scramble to protect and pamper is smoke, not even supposed to exist apart from Him. Our rewards are not health or wealth or comfort or even answered prayer or heaven. Our reward is God Himself, nothing else. Nothing I do is good unless it glorifies God. Everything that glorifies God is good.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Passing Go: Do Not Take Me Back...

On these beautiful days, as summer opens increasingly wide, my mind drifts often toward Eden. When I see sweet flowers share their nectar with bees and hummingbirds. when little girls skip and giggle as they gather up daisies and crowning coneflowers, I think that no other flawless garden could have been more perfect than this one. But, of course, it could. Eden didn't admit thorns or breed aphids or harbor sad withering like mine does. On days like this, I can't help but wonder whether going back to Eden would bring the highest of pleasures.

In fact, as I learned about God and creation and what He originally intended for man, and as I meditated on Adam and Eve's life in Eden, how they walked daily with God outside the reach of pain and guilt, I began to equate that first-created life with the highest I could imagine. "Take me back there," I prayed. "Let me know You and Your sweet Spirit-breath again. Let me know daily the gentle sun and glad harmony with every other created thing."

God did not grant that prayer, though, and He never will. After sin, that future vanished forever. Instead, He has another.

Because of His great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in our transgressions--it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with Him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus in order that in the coming ages He might show the incomparable riches of His grace, expressed in His kindness to us in Christ Jesus.--Ephesians 2:4-7

God will not return us to Eden. Instead, like passing 'Go' in Monopoly, we skip past Eden entirely. He wants instead to keep us with Him, where He walks now, to the heavens rather than here on earth. Eden is closed forever; the angels He placed at its gate made that clear. He does, however, promise another future, not one of sweet garden-tending, but one of adoration, filled with glad hosannas and triumphant hallelujahs. We will walk with Him there, too, but in His own neighborhood, not our own.

So, as I pick whatever thornless and insect-free flowers I can find today, and capture for awhile their gentle gifts, I remember that they do not bring the highest of pleasures. Instead, I let them take me past their own fragile beauty to one that never fades.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Waiting in the Dark

Some people say we learn all of our lives, but if so, I wonder why we are so bad at it. As a teacher, I daily watched the learning process and constantly marveled at the way I could explain something to a student a dozen times, but on the thirteenth, for no apparent reason, he would suddenly understand. We called these light bulb moments, and I never understood how they worked. Until today.

A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from His roots a Branch will bear fruit. The Spirit of the Lord will rest on Him--the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of power, the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord--and He will delight in the fear of the Lord.--Isaiah 11:1-3

What I saw operating in my students in their light bulb moments was understanding, and according to Isaiah, understanding comes from God. No wonder they never got it the first twelve times. Whatever truth I tried to explain, whether it was the formula for circumference or how to use past participles or the simplicity of faith, I had to wait for God to add His part to mine for the process to complete. The truth of the Math or English or godly principle existed whether the child knew it or not, much like the reality of a round world waited for people to abandon the flat one.

Understanding this helps take the panic out of my own lapses in understanding. God revealed Himself to men gradually in His own time after all: first He walked with Adam and Eve, talked with the patriarchs, and gave them His Word in the Old Testament, then He sent His Son to be with us in the flesh, then He sent His Spirit, the same spirit that still gives us wisdom, knowledge, understanding, counsel, and fear of Him. And just like the blank spots that Abraham and the apostles knew even though God was with them all the time, I, too, know times of empty cluelessness. But never fear.

From one man He made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and He determined the times set for them and the exact places they should live. God did this so that men would seek Him and perhaps reach out for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each of us.--Acts 17:26-27

Like for the students, the Holy Spirit brings understanding and wisdom and faith and fear exactly when I need them--exactly when I, specifically, need them, and for the express purpose of bringing me nearer to Him. If I flail about a bit waiting, then the result will be worth it. Until then, I pray, "Holy Spirit, Come."

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Fruit of the Cross

When most people think of vineyards, they recall lush leaves that nearly span their palm and heavy clusters of bursting grapes, dark and ready for winemaking and, indeed, in late summer and early fall, right before harvest, it does look like that. In winter, though, the vineyard looks stark and bare. Vines stand out black against the snow and the branches that held last year's harvest poke out useless in all directions.

Beginning in January or February, the orchardmen begin to prune. All the branches that grew out randomly during the previous season come off and all they leave are the main stems: one that comes up straight and true from the ground and two in either direction perpendicular from it, trained to their supports. After pruning and before new sprouts come in spring, each vine looks like a gnarled T, too much like a trained and tortured reminder of the cross that once bore up the Son of God. Acre after acre, in perfect rows, the vineyard becomes a dim graveyard, hiding behind grim promise of a vibrant new life.

Until I could witness the yearly progress of grapevines under that hands of the orchardmen who care for them, I didn't understand God's tender imagery in the gospel:

I am the vine and you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit. Apart from me, you can do nothing.--John 15:5

Until I saw them, I didn't know how wildly the vines grew every year. I didn't know how useless that wild growth became once it produces only one year's fruit. I didn't know how ruthlessly the pruner removed those random growths, the same ones he planted with his own hands. I didn't know how sad the vines would look afterward: cross after cross along hundreds of rows over dozens of acres.

The Lord is indeed the vine. He told His disciples how He would save them and gave them a vivid picture by which they could see it. His cross is the source of our nurture and our sure root. Without savage pruning, no good harvest will come. Eventually, an unpruned vine will diminish unto uselessness. Only by regularly pruning back into its perfect shape will it produce the beauty and round, full fruit for which it was created.

The wine begins with the cross.

Photo credit: Weggy Winery, Muscoda, Wisconsin, 2011

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Shooting in a Strange Land

Sometimes I feel like I live and battle in a foreign land. What I see, what I hear, who I meet--I feel at odds with them as I try to measure myself and everything around me against a holy God. I shouldn't be surprised, though, considering that evil still roams to and fro on the earth. It's a matter of territory, I suppose. Both as a body of believers and as individuals, we give and take territory and, like in any battle, we have to know what we are fighting for.

My biggest problem, as always, is maintaining focus. It's like the bull's eye for which shooters aim when they practice. I have to constantly remember that hitting anything outside the exact center isn't good enough. And I have plenty of examples to remind me.

They worshiped the Lord, but they also appointed all sorts of their own people to officiate for them as priests in the shrines in the high places. They worshiped the Lord, but they also served their own gods in accordance with the customs of the nations from which they had been brought.--2Kings 17:32-33

When the Israelites were captured and resettled in Samaria, they missed the target big time. Their priest, their priests, mind you, decided that the best way to accommodate their captors and appease their God at the same time was to adapt to their new environment. They wanted to fit in, to be up to date, to understand the culture. God did not agree.

Do not worship other gods. Do not forget the covenant I have made with you and do not worship other gods. Rather, worship the Lord your God; it is He who will deliver you from the hand of all your enemies''2Kings 17:37-39

God insists that I follow Him and Him only without compromise. He doesn't do this because He is a megalomaniac. He does it out of love because He knows that no other way works. Compromise leads to idolatry. Adaptation leads to despair. It happened to the Israelites and every time I give in to what God does not condone, it happens to me.

To this day, they persist in their former practices. They neither worship the Lord nor adhere to the decrees and ordinances, the laws and commands the Lord gave the descendants of Jacob, whom He called Israel.--1Kings 17:34

I have to aim for the bull's eye, even when I am captive, even when I seem nerdy, even when I am misunderstood. I have to love my captors in the process, but my aim must remain steady. I may live in a foreign land and have to fight to maintain my territory every day, but I have no real choice. It's not only a matter of winning. It's survival. If I give in to what presses in on every side, I will look smart and agreeable, but will literally be swallowed up so slowly that I won't even notice.

So, today, I fire away, aiming for the middle, and if I miss, at least I have the target clearly in view.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Lifting the Hammer

I am crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave His life for me.--Galatians 2:20

I can't help but wonder how many crucifixions Paul saw before he wrote this. More than dozens, probably hundreds. We see crucifixion as a metaphor, but not him. He knew well their bloody agony, their slow strangling torture. His choice of crucifixion to describe the progress of his life in Christ drew purposely on one of the most vivid images he knew.

All who were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into His death. We were buried with Him through baptism...We know that our old self was crucified with Him so that the body of sin is done away with and we should no longer be slaves to sin.--Roman 6:3-6

Paul says that baptism crucified our body, yet our physical body did not die. I think he means instead that baptism crucifies our sin, but does not kill real flesh. So I wonder, to what degree can sin die in a body that still lives? Paul explains that, too. If I can live my life by faith in the Son of God, sin can begin to die. To whatever degree I replace my own desires, motives, and actions with Yours, sin dies.

So how do I do that? I know that sin comes from within me, from outside of me through a fallen world, and through temptation from evil. The evil I leave to You through prayer. I am in charge, however, of the sin I admit into my life through my own natural flesh and through my affection for this world. Every time I settle for less, every time I blast by Your warnings, every time I grab for what I know does not last, sin leaps up, alive and kicking.

In the end, I have to do my part exactly as You did Yours. I have to grab up the hammer and nails, lay my own admitted failures down on two stout beams, and drive in the instruments of destruction. No one will do this for me, and it will hurt. I will think it impossible. I will feel like I am dying, that nothing of me will survive. And that is Your plan. I am not fit to live in me, but You are.

May I never boast but in the cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me and I to the world--Galatians 6:14

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Skull that Sings

My son Bryan recently gave away his bone collection. This old boxful of treasures, saved carefully for almost two decades, became the precious property of another little boy in exactly the same state of messy adventure as Bryan had been when he first accumulated it. As the new owner pondered an appropriate place to display the collection, Bryan told him that its crown, a nearly perfect cow skull, must not languish. He must hang it somewhere prominent, as Bryan had, to render its full due.

Compliantly, the young man's dad hung it high on a post in their driveway, a greeting of mixed messages to postmen and visitors alike. Then something unexpected happened. An ambitious family of wrens, looking to find a hospitable home, began carrying twigs into it. Eventually, they laid eggs and hatched little wrens there. Now, feathered parents transport food in and out of the skull, flying through the gaping eye holes, an ironic picture in their juxtaposition of old death and new life.

Today, however, I realized they also provide a metaphor for God's life in us. We are as dead in sin as that old cow skull: dry and barren of useful flesh. What pulsed constructively through us died with Adam and Eve's rebellion in Eden. As a result, we rub into eventual dust like Ezekiel's dry bones. When God breathes His Spirit into us, though, He brings life back into the husk. Like the flaps and chirps of baby wrens, He brings sound and warmth into a dead place.

Now, this is not a perfect metaphor--the skull did not rise up and speak and the wrens will eventually move out and the skull will empty again. But when I imagine how a merciful Savior filled my own sad life with a song of hope, well, the skull dwellers make the perfect picture of grace.

If Christ is in you, your body is dead because of sin, yet your spirit is alive because of righteousness.--Romans 8:10

Monday, June 20, 2011

Love in Midsummer

Today began perfectly--the longest day of the year stretching out like a gift. Huge hours of light that didn't press with activity. I wanted to savor this day, to celebrate summer's respite from winter's razor sharp cold and long gray. In keeping with my mood, God met me this morning with sweet serenades about His unending love and I was ready to hear it.

I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with loving kindness.--Jeremiah 31:3

And He has. He sang to my soul and the music became a duet. I languished in His arms. The day promised to unfold in gentle sweetness. Then I went to make a phone call. In one quick moment, He reminded me that His love is not designed to be one-sided. He expects the same out of me. That's where the day began to break down.

One short conversation reminded me I couldn't do it. I wanted to, I really did, but I don't know how to love like God. Faced with what sounded to me like selfish tears, I could only think that a person distraught enough to cry does not necessarily have good reason. Crying does not make one right. In fact, in this case, she seemed almost certainly wrong. I cared about her, but not enough to soothe her. The decisions she was making promised only a train wreck.

That, in fact, was the rub. My sad friend was crying, and I kept thinking that I have to please God. Unlike my friend, He makes the way to please Him fairly straightforward. He wants me to love. "Love me, love my people", He says. But how can I do both? How can I tell my friend that she is self-destructing and still love her? God is true to Himself and still loves all His creation. Why can't I?

The only thing I know how to do is to follow His instructions in the order He gave them. Love Him first, then be as gentle with my friend as I know how. I don't think I did very well, but the love God showed me in a long day lush with promise He also shows my friend. If I behaved harshly toward her, He does not. If I can rest in His love for me, I can also rest in His love for her.

I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither present nor future nor any powers, neither height nor depth or anything else in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.--Romans 8:38-39

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Do I Look Fat in this Dress? Or...The Garments of Praise, Part 2

Yesterday, when I was writing about spiritual dressing, about how dust and sackcloth sometimes cover our spirit, and about how God holds out garments of regeneration and redemption, always our size, and perfectly beautiful, I realized that there may be more practical application for these ideas. After all, I really do stand in my closet every morning scratching my head, wondering what to put on. Something prompts me to decide what to buy and what to wear and I really do spend a lot of time and brain power on something apparently inconsequential. But is it?

I know this: I take pleasure in the heft of my wedding dress' luxurious satin; I delight in the slick, wet feel of silk; I enjoy fur's heavy promise of warmth. Through contact with them, I know fine fabric from poor. And I know that some days, I can put on liquid linen or watery silk, feeling them move on me as I turn, and thank God with a clear heart. Some days, I can't. Some days, I pass the rich colors and tactile pleasure by, pulling down old jeans or yesterday's tee shirt. Some days, I can't bear the beauty.

God gave me this body on purpose, and sin necessitates that I cover it. My body, however, houses my spirit and when I clothe the one, I am also covering the other. I am forced to see and feel outside what I know inside.

Sin is not only dust and sackcloth--it is regret and sorrow. Righteousness is not only a rich robe--it is renewal and forgiveness and rebirth. Any dress I wear in sin will make me look drab. When any color seems to bring out a sparkle in my eyes, that sparkle comes from within. My clothes do no make me; they reflect me. No fine clothes can make a dirty man clean and, if I am honest, I will not even try to put them on in that condition. No matter how beautifully I try to cover shame, its horror will show, but neither will God's glory in me be diminished by any humble covering.

Clothes look and feel awkward not as much because they don't match each other, but because they don't match who I am relative to God. Bright colors go with boldness, light with soft clarity and purity, dark with heaviness. Modest clothes show confidence, revealing clothes show insecurity. Shapelessness projects fear or doubt, a good fit ease. In the end, it is God's revelation in my heart and soul that decide my wardrobe, not so much what hangs in my closet.

He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor and the day of vengeance of our God--to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.--Isaiah 61:1-3

Do I Look Fat in this Dress? Or...The Garments of Praise, Part 1

In drifting through television channels the other day, my husband landed for a moment on a commercial for Bridezilla, the reality show that showcases brides at their worst. "Now who would marry one of those women?" he wondered and indeed, they looked very un-bridelike. Not only did none of them blush or stammer about their waiting grooms, but none of them seemed at home in their extravagant dresses, either. They wore them, but like a mannikin might. The dresses were meant to accentuate a beauty they never had.

In the beginning, You made us naked. Adam and Eve didn't care about wearing anything at all. They didn't need clothes. Not only did Eden's perfect climate make them unnecessary, their intimate relationship with You made them irrelevant. You made the first man from dirt, but he walked before You without awareness of it. All that changed pretty quick. Sin forced men right back into the dust. In his horror of what he had done, man donned for the first time his apparel of shame: dust and ashes.

You did not let us wear those clothes forever, however. You called us to more. When You call us to faith, You hold up for us a robe of righteousness, a garment of praise, the clothes in which we become fit to do good works in Your name, the clothes of mercy, the crown and jewels of renewal.

So, how does all this help when I choose what to wear? It helps by remembering that You gave me a body that You knew I would have to dress every day, and that my real clothes are not the ones that hang in my closet, but they are the ones I wear when I stand before You.

I delight greatly in the Lord. My soul rejoices in my God. For He has clothed me in the garments of salvation and arrayed me in a robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom adorns his head like a priest and as a bride adorns herself with jewels.--Isaiah 61:10

Part 2: What that means when I face my closet

Friday, June 17, 2011

Heaven's slings and arrows

When the servant of the man of God got up and went out early the next morning, an army of horses and chariots had surrounded the city. "Oh, my lord, what shall we do?" the servant asked. "Don't be afraid," the prophet answered. "Those who are with us are more than those who are with them." And Elisha prayed, "O Lord, open his eyes so he may see." Then the Lord opened the servant's eyes, and he looked and saw the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha."--2Kings 6:15-17

Most days, I want to forget that I am a soldier. As an apparently serene morning begins and I reach for a cup of fresh coffee and smile at the rising sun, I know in my heart that this day, so promising, will challenge me somehow. The challenges vary, they wear different clothes every day, but the real combatants never change. Whether I have to fight traffic, or experience unkindness, or discipline children, or pull a garden full of weeds, or encounter personal temptations, I often disregard what You taught me about fighting my fights. I am a minor player in them. I carry water or messages or at best fire a few feeble shots. You wield the real weapons.

In Roman 7, Paul bemoans his inability to live as he knows he should. He knows what is right and doesn't do it. He knows what is wrong and though he doesn't want to do it, he does it anyway. I understand his frustration. Just as he found, I am never strong enough, never clever enough, never prepared enough to fight real evil. And that's OK. I have You.

Elisha knew this when he showed his servant the real army. That army fights for me too, as long as I ally myself with its side. My real job isn't to fight, it's to choose. Yes, I have to enter swinging, but it is not me who determines the victor. As I desire You and Your good, You engage the fight. As I yield to evil, evil takes back ground in my life. Just as Paul lamented, evil already has a foothold, a wedge, in my life. I can let it in further or let You help me slam the door in its face.

You force that choice daily through circumstances and people. You show constantly the enemy gathering at my gates. You stand beside me with holy weapons at the ready waiting for me to look up from my knees, pleading for help. The instant I do, you fling them and enemy retreats. Then, when the battle is won, I don't just have a victory, I have You.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Nits and Tittles

Nineteenth century painter George Seurat was a pointillist--he created his works of art not by lathering up a broad brush and drawing it expertly across a canvas, but by placing thousands, sometimes millions, of tiny dots, precise in color and position, side by side so that up close, they look like beautiful grains of sand, but from a distance, they blend into something much more. One of his paintings, called A Sunday Afternoon, hangs in Chicago's Art Institute. It is huge, taking up most of a whole wall and when I had the chance, I lingered there sometimes. The painting had as much to say in its parts as it did as a whole. Individually, I admired the dots for their perfection and precision. Together, I never failed to marvel at how they gradually merged into something lovely, complete, and cohesive.

Seurat's paintings remind me of Your Word.

He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the written code with all its regulations that was against us and stood opposed to us. He took it away, nailing it to the cross.--Colossians 2:14

For the Israelites, You were never near. They approached You only through priest and sacrifice, even those times filled with fear for their lives. Moses and Abraham rose above the rest because You talked directly to them, but for everyone else, all most men knew of You were Your laws. As a result, they held your law, every tiny detail, as the closest they could get to You. By obeying every regulation, every little nuance, they came near to You, loved You. You gave them this opportunity through giving them the law and they loved You for it. In those times, they stood close to the painting, handled each little dot with reverence, and were careful to replace them exactly. Rabbis still do this, arguing over tiny points of Torah, and glorying in the argument because it brings You closer to them. The King James Bible calls these little points jots and tittles, and warns us not to change them. We call the same practice nit picking, but the idea is the same and the warning well taken. Even Seurat's paintings would change in the whole if someone altered the color or position of the dots.

You never changed the dots, either. Every tiny portion of Scripture remains just as You ordained it. You did something else. You nailed it to the cross. You killed it. Just think of the image of that. Paul wrote this verse around 60A.D., when ordinary citizens still saw people tortured and murdered this way. They saw these victims scream and writhe in agony before dying. You put the old law, the law Your people loved, on that same cross, and it goes out kicking and screaming, too.

Our Scripture gives detailed step-by-step instructions regarding how to approach You. To better understand it, I still pick it apart, separate all its nits and jots into pieces small enough to understand. This respect for detail pleases You, I think, but also leaves me in danger of missing the whole picture. When I concentrate too long on the individual parts of Your newer law, the one you tore open the temple veil to expose, I can, over time, destroy the glue by which they form the new whole You died to create. Your new law takes all the little pieces, the finite instructions, and assembles them with the glue of love. When I disassemble them, and let them stay that way, the love leaks out and all that is left are little, lovely, disassociated dots.

I must not love only the dots in your beautiful Sunday Afternoon. Even while I love every single piece of Your Word, I have to ingest whole gobs of it, to dive into its whole ocean, read great hunks daily. You show Yourself in the smallest parts, but they are only parts. The Scripture is immense because You are. The pieces tell me what to do. The whole tells me who You are.

Seek the Lord while He may be found. Call on Him while He is near.--Isaiah 55:6

Monday, June 13, 2011

Slain and Singing

Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus.--1Thessalonians 5:18
Surely He took all our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered Him stricken by God, smitten by Him and afflicted.--Isaiah 53:4

I have troubles, troubles through which I am to praise You. My troubles fret You, too, though You allow them all. You really feel like a parent in this. This is why You call Yourself our Father. No other god, either ancient or modern, does this. Other gods manifest as rulers and kings, powerful and frightful, one dimensional in their lofty separation, but not You. They are flat, not gods at all.

But You, You not only carry me, but You carry my troubles too, lift them from my back and put them on Your own, ultimately bearing them all the way to the cross. If I think of them properly, my troubles constitute my sacrifice to You as I surrender them. To You I am to transfer all my earthly hopes, slain by my own hand by both command and necessity. They bleed all over the altar, then become You somehow: Your blood, Your pain, because I have slain what I most treasure for Your sake.

This must continue until I realize that You have told me to kill only what I do not need. You provide everything I need--raise it and kill it and raise it again in Your perfect will. And all the while, You do this not because You lack anything and need that sacrifice, but because I do. You die and resurrect by voluntary affliction, not as inevitable consequence. You do it through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault. You continue to lay down among spilt blood and scattered crumbs, to split Yourself open again and again, then to rise up time after time until I see it all, grasp Your holy feet and give glorious thanks for my burden's assumption. and slaughter in You.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

The Quality of Mercy

The prophet came to the King of Israel and said, "Strengthen your position and see what must be done, because next spring the king of Aram will attack you again."--1Kings 20:22

I have the hardest time understanding mercy. By its very nature, mercy implies the principle of subjection: I cannot show mercy unless the other party is under my power. I know that You are merciful, gracious and compassionate, and slow to anger (Joel 2:13). I know You save men purely on the basis of your mercy (Titus 3:5) and you delight in doing so (Micah 7:8). I also know that You command me to demonstrate mercy to others (Micah 6:8, Luke 6:36, Matthew 5:7). But, then, there are those times....

Like in 1Kings 20, when you commanded Israel's King Ahab to attack the blasphemous King of Aram and he did, but then showed mercy to him at the end. Ahab recognized the attacking king of Aram as his brother, sympathized with him, and You punished him for it. And You certainly did not show mercy on the Pharisees in Matthew 23. You called them every name in the book, Your book, condemning them for their own blasphemous behavior. You did not immediately destroy the pharisees, but the Romans did about thirty years later, when they destroyed the temple, leaving only the rabbis. These two instances of withheld mercy tie the Old Testament to the New Testament, bridging the old law and the new, the supremacy of the law to the gospel of grace. I have to find some common ground here.

I think your lesson in the application of mercy lies here: Both the King of Aram and the pharisees denied God's power: the King in words, the pharisees in action. That was bad enough, but they had something else in common. They also both held positions whereby they each wielded authority over others and, if they went unchecked, would continue to harm them. The Tanach, my Hebrew Old Testament, says this: "Mercy to the evil is in itself a manifestation of cruelty, for the surviving evildoer will cause others to suffer." This is the principle you define in 1Kings 20:22 above when Your prophet tells Ahab that, if he doesn't eradicate the evil before him, it will return.

If this idea had remained confined to Old Testament judgement, I might not consider it so compelling, but it didn't. You continued to demonstrate it in the New Testament when you specifically accuse and condemn the pharisees for corrupting those under their care (Matt 23:15). Like Ahab, I also recognize my brotherhood with some who blaspheme your Name. Mercy, however, belongs to You and my sympathy and feelings for someone against whom You send me to war cannot supersede Your clear instruction. Mercy comes from and belongs to you.

I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion."--Exodus 33:19 and Romans 9:15.


Many years ago, when my youngest son was a toddler, he fell down the stairs. The stairway was a short one, only seven steps, but a long and dangerous enough way for a little one. When it happened, I was standing at the bottom talking to someone with my back turned but, as he teetered over the edge, I turned around just in time to see him, reached out both arms, and scooped him up in mid-air, before he had a chance to hurt himself. I have thought of this often since then, as an allegory for my relationship to You, and am thinking about it again today.

Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?--Psalm 139:6

Listen to me, O house of Jacob, all you who remain in the house of Israel, you whom I have upheld since your were conceived, and have carried you since your birth.--Isaiah 46:3

You have carried me since my birth, and even before. You, who are mighty, created me, and before I was flesh, created the idea of me. You, who know the end from the beginning, declared men good, and watched as our ruin unfolded, carry us as children and catch us before we hit bottom.

Remember the former things, the things from long ago. I am God and there is no other. I am God and there is none like me. I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times what is still to come. I say, my purpose will stand and I will do all that I please.--Isaiah 46:9-10

Yes, you catch me. In fact you have always caught me, still catch me, will always catch me. I am simultaneously falling through mid-air and lying safe in your arms because time, the linear progression of events, occurs for me but not for You. You live in eternity, where time has no meaning, where events exist side-by-side, all equally in the present. You have always created. You have always declared yourself God. You have always provided rescue. You always return in glory. The beginning and the end occur simultaneous in Your sight.

This is one of the ways I know You are God. Your timelessness is incomprehensible to me. For me, life unfolds, but for You, it is always full present as seed, as emergent plant, in bud, in full-blown flower, and as withered remains. I sometimes express this as faithfulness, but this concept infers that you wait for some event, then act. For You, the precursor, the event, Your action, and its result occur at once without beginning or end. In reality, Your actions, from before creation until after your return full of glory, exist eternally beside all Your deeds through what we know as history, above, around, and through time. You will do all you please because You have already done it.

This is how I can rest in You. My future already exists in Your hands. For good or ill, You already know it, have worked it into your plan. Since You either will or allow all events, You surround me like air. You not only catch, but propel. I can close my eyes, pretend You are not there, and leap into the frightful darkness, but why? You own that wilderness, too. I am never outside your sovereign power.

Yes, I am caught, caught in the only place I can rest.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Glad Thorns

One of Your gifts to me is to show me my sins. As I am getting older, my physical limitations increasingly show themselves, but whether these rise to attention or not, my desire to do wrong remains. Part of Your mercy lies in the revelation of my weakness in the face of Your holiness. I think so often that Your mercy lies in rescue, but today I am not so sure. Today I think that a great deal of your mercy lies in Your constancy and in reminders that I am a human and You are God.

Every morning, I measure my new day against You. You are not in unflagging desert heat. You are not in the friendly sun. Cool clouds like today's do not bring You. You show Yourself only in startling fire, in thunderous rolling clouds. I stretch out relaxed flesh under sweet, mild days and in those times, am fully human, but You come only in ferocity of Spirit.

To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassing great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my side, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.--2Cor 12:7

Paul said that the thorn in his side was a messenger of Satan, but it also came as a gift; he knew torment because it brought him to his all-too-human knees before You in constant humility. I don't like that, either. I want to stand before You, to recall my supremacy on earth, my rule over creation. You want me to kneel and acknowledge You, Creator of all, and supreme over all You made, including me.

When You made Adam and gave him dominion over all other creatures, you put him in direct conflict with Satan, to whom you had already given power on the earth. You always knew that Satan's resulting temptations would reveal man's most repulsive parts and thereby show Your greatness in sustaining and forgiving. All in Your plan. It was always all in Your plan.

So I glory in my weakness. Every time I hurt, I recall You do not. Every time I sin, I know You do not. Every time I miss the mark, I remember where to look to aim better next time. Every time the storm comes, I remember Your glory and ferocity in it. In the end, I do not want You to be like me. I want You strong and powerful, but once I acknowledge that You are, that difference lasts for all time. I will always be weak before you, but my condition's corollary is that I know You as You truly are. My thorns become my allies in this.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Possibility of Perfection

I've been thinking about getting a new car. In doing this, my eye rarely travels to the middle of the pack, but to either end, where the eco-friendly transportation resides on the one end, and the whiz-bang, go-fast roadster revs up on the other. But I will not buy either, not only because they are both too expensive, which they generally are, but because they are both basically flawed, designed to fail. The one has batteries as an integral part, which will inevitably need to be replaced before the car, and the other has turbos, which also have a short life relative to the machine they are designed to power. In the middle, the boring middle, sits the car I will eventually buy. I know instinctively that obvious flaws do not result in wise choices. If I can find it, I want a perfect car.

So do You.

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.--Matthew 5:48

You gave no wiggle room in this. You made us to be perfect and when we proved our failure, You came wearing our own flesh both to re-make our perfection and to show us what it looks like. You have proven the perfect man so that we follow you back into it.

For those God foreknew He also predestined to be confirmed to the likeness of His Son so that He might be the firstborn of many brothers.--Romans 8:29

You came as a perfect human and if I have been called, my first calling lay in living like You did. You sympathize with my weakness and forgive when I fail, but do not share those weaknesses and do not accept when I yield to them. You show me that I can live without sinning.

We know that in all things, God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose.--Romans 8:28
Life without sin--this is the good, this is the purpose to which You call me. You do not expect me to be a perfect spirit, like You. You do expect me to be sinless man, the man you created in Eden. The desire to achieve this and the actions that follow it define love and You help and support me as I work toward it.

So, I cling to You and the sweet helps You have provided--Your Word, prayer, humility, obedience, and all the rest. As I take steps toward You, You reach out to me from the cross, affirming with Your own flesh and blood that I am worth the effort. Though perfection seems impossible, it's not that complicated. Much simpler than either a Prius or a Jaguar that taunt me in spite of their flaws.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

My Father's Gifts

My dad is gone now, but when I was a girl, he taught me to delight in beauty and adventure. He could turn a perfectly ordinary day into an event simply by offering to take us for a ride. We always knew what that meant--he had a plan to transport us to one of the world's treasures. He had found a garden in extravagant bloom, or a grassy hillside perfect for juvenile tumbling, or a hidden cabin, or a valley falling away from a blue mountain. Part of his charm lay in that he never revealed our destination ahead of time but, when we arrived, he simply flung his arms as though he conducted this private symphony for us alone saying, "Here it is. I made this just for you. Isn't it wonderful?"

Of course, Dad never made any of those destinations. You did. He did show me something important about You in the process, however. You continually give. You lay something in my lap every day, something I never imagine even existed. And then I do the same thing to Your gift as I did to Dad's; I take if for granted. I underestimate it. I shrug it off. I sometimes even ruin it. I never value it as highly as it deserves. You continually do what Dad did on a grand, universal scale. You give perfect gifts to broken men. You, however, have additional instructions.

Each one should use whatever gifts he received to serve others, faithfully administering God's grace in its various forms.--1Peter 4:10

So I get these wonderful gifts from you--life, the ability to love, skills, knowledge, health, strength--and I have to give them away to other broken men. Have You seen the mess we make of them? You love me perfectly, but I cannot love anyone else perfectly. I give my pitted and tarnished love to someone else, they add their own measure of imperfection, then pass on the increasingly marred product, and so on. Entropy in its saddest form.

I don't want to give anything away. I can't see any possible result but hurt and disappointment. I am stuck in my own skin, able to experience nothing except from my own perspective. My own experience is the only one I can ever completely know, but You want me to crawl out of myself and walk in someone else's shoes. You want me to share myself completely with someone I know will disappoint. You give me gifts and tell me to count each one for the sole purpose of sharing it.

Do not think of yourselves more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment in accordance with the faith given you. In Christ, we who are many form one body and each member belongs to all the others.--Romans 12:3,6

This, I think, is one of the truths in this: believers share a basic identity in one another. You have ordained this. I cannot divorce myself from other believers when they disappoint me because we are joined in You and by You. My husband, Dave, says that we all tend to think ourselves better than we are. This is true. We also expect other believers to be better than they are. You know this, too, of course, and have provided for it.

So, like my dad, you pour gifts into imperfect, ungrateful vessels. Then, you tell me to pour them into other imperfect vessels with the promise that, if I do so faithfully, You will not only continue to give, but You will renew and replace what we have lost or ruined in our imperfection. Your gifts came perfectly from You and are transferred among us in ever perfect condition, not because we made them so, but because You do.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Creation's Prerequisite

Some days feel like Eden, thick and pulsing richly with life, dripping with dew, heady with flowers. Creation feels new on these days, and I feel like I could still walk side by side with You, experiencing what it means to be created in Your image. You even gave me my own dominion, a hierarchy of creation that mirrors Yours. My flesh bears evidence of Your Spirit. You made me a fleshly replica of what exists in the heavens, gave me rule over a hierarchy of beings existing side by side with another hierarchy, one of pure spirit, but both ruled absolutely by You.

I look like You, but I am not You. I am like You as my own reflection is like me. Image without essence, my flesh a powerless reflection of Your Spirit. All the parts are present, but they don't function independently. Even my own dominion exists only to reflect Your vast one. Did Adam and Eve, when they walked with you in Eden, recognize their resemblance to You? Is that when it all began to go wrong?

This may be why You created wisdom before anything else, the same wisdom of which fear of You is the beginning. Without fear of you, I will take my own kingship too seriously, raise myself too high. I look like You, and intellectually know that I am not You, but practically, when I survey the vast kingdom You have given me, and the strength and intellect, I forget who You are. That is when I sin.

Still, You gave me life and want me to live it and, on days like this, physical life seems a richer creation than spirit. I do not imagine that spirits smell or feel or taste. You made a day like this for tasting, but I need wisdom to put this life in its intended context. You did not make me human, the crown of creation, to deny life. The life You made in me is good; You said so. You did, however, make me to deny sin.

When I consider the heavens, the work of your hands, the moon and the stars that you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him? You made him a little lower than the angels and crowned him with glory and honor. You made him ruler over the works of your hands. You put everything under his feet.--Psalm 8:3-6

Does not wisdom call out? "The Lord brought me forth as the first of his works, before his deeds of old; I was appointed from eternity, from the beginning, before the world began."--Proverbs 8:1,22

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Time Enough

We are so completely in Your hands. I am old enough to look at my life from a distance, to see it as a tableau I played out like Shakespeare's player who "struts and frets upon a stage." I can see each place where the road forked, and each time I chose, well or poorly, and I see the results of those choices only now, from a distance. Too often, they hurt the track of my own life, but the deepest regrets come from new sight into the instances where my choices have hurt the lives of others.

Yesterday, while tucking a young boy into the mothering place under my arm who still wears the sweetness that wells up during ages in single digits, I learned that I missed something precious. As quiet dawn brought us words about Your creation and his own purpose before you, I saw small flashes of first understanding. I saw in that new day the rising of your truth in the boy's face.

I taught my own sons a little about numbers and letters, and I told stories, but I never told them about You. Never. Not in the fragile early morning or tender bedtime. Never when petting a puppy or planting a flower. Never when throwing a ball or giving a bath. How much more the wonder of your immense plan than Dr. Seuss or Tom Sawyer! And, as a result, my sons' eyes focus earthward rather than heavenward. Kind eyes, but so limited.

Still, You knew all of this from before time began. You knew I would fail my sons. You knew they would flounder in their blindness regarding You. You could have called me so much earlier, led me to take them into that sweet place where even hens gather their chicks, and showed me how to sing them Your sweet song. But You didn't.

You did call me, however. Much later. And now I see what we all missed, the transfer of holy knowledge from generation to generation, the ignition of faith before the taint of vast regret. Still, I know You and I know there is still time enough. In You, there is always time enough. And in You, I know what I must do, even now.

Before I was afflicted, I went astray, but now I obey your word. It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees.--Psalm 119:67,71
In Him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of Him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of His will in order that we, who were the first to hope in Christ, might be for the praise of His glory.--Ephesians 1:12.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

What You Made

I am not intended to live as a purely spiritual being. Although You remind me constantly to look toward You, to serve You, to obey You, to bend myself constantly toward You, I am human. And more than that, You made me that way. You made this life for me and made me to live it. If I feel like a misfit, a spiritual being in a human skin struggling to get out, a bursting chrysalis, the fault is mine, not Yours. So what am I missing?

You already know what I will and will not do. Both my longing for a life more deeply Spirit-led and my apparently conflicting needs for food and water and rest come from You. You understand how they live and intermingle perfectly, but I do not. In the face of what Your Spirit offers, my humanity seems so irrelevant. Its trials cause unavoidable pain and its pleasures rush too soon away. I don't see the point of humanity.

But, maybe that is part of the point. I don't see with your eyes, after all. You gave my life to me, so it must be good for both of us. Whether it is a vehicle to emphasize your godhead or a gift for me to enjoy or both, I am human for a reason, Your reason. You never made me an angel or any other pure spirit. Instead, You gave me this life and told me to dedicate it to Your service. I am frail and full of faults, but I do not have to apologize for the fact of my humanity. I must simply live it.

For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother's womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.--Psalm 139:13-16

Friday, June 3, 2011

Proper Places

His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and goodness.--1Peter 1:2

I want to live the life You have planned for me. I want to be godly before You. How can I access divine power to do this?

For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness, and to goodness, knowledge, and to knowledge, self-control, and to self-control, perseverance, and to perseverance, godliness, and to godliness brotherly kindness, and to brotherly kindness, love.--1Peter 1:5-7

Oh, sure. I can't do this. No way. I can do some of these some of the time, but not all of them all of the time. Never.

If anyone does not have them, he is nearsighted and blind, and has forgotten he has been cleansed from his past sins.--1Peter 1:9

Just a minute. So having the character You desire, a character that progresses from faith to goodness to knowledge to self-control to perseverance to godliness to brotherly kindness to love starts with remembering my own sin. Accessing diving power depends on knowing first that I can't do it. These characteristics do not come from my own depths, but from Yours.

Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet's own interpretation. For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.--1Peter 1:20-21

In fact, You gave us Your Word, and through the Holy Spirit continue to give us Your Word, but that Word is never our word. Even during the wonderful times you transfer holy understanding to me (like now), I remain my ego-driven, sinful self. You may speak, and even use my own mouth to speak out loud, but I can never forget that the same mouth that You enable to speak Your truth is still connected to my sinful body. In fact, anyone who forgets this, You tell me is blind.

Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him and He will make your paths straight.--Proverbs 3:5-6

You, not me. Knowing who You are and who I am keeps us both in the places You prescribed and all is as right as this world allows.

Thursday, June 2, 2011


It seems to me that my understanding of people and times and places when they stand alone differs substantially from when they stand next to someone or sometime or someplace else. For instance, reading or watching television or even praying takes me more deeply inside, whereas talking or playing or working with other people brings motion and accomplishment not otherwise possible. Another example occurs as I work to develop character. I cannot summon up humility either alone, or even in community. Humility can only come from standing close to God and seeing the vast difference between us. Proximity does this.

Close association also gives depth of understanding. "I love you" from a distance means something very different from "I love you" whispered in my ear. Proximity in the written word enhances it, too. Today, my reading began with this familiar verse:

"My thoughts are not your thoughts; neither are your ways my ways," declares the Lord. "As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts."--Isaiah 55: 8

In this verse, God apparently declares that we do not think alike, that He will forever remain, at least to some degree, incomprehensible to me. But those words are followed immediately by these, also familiar:

"As the rain and snow come down from heaven and do not return without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so the word that goes out of my mouth will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it."--Isaiah 55:9-10

These last verses tell me that God gives me His word and His word has purpose, a purpose that God enacts perfectly. Taken together, though, these verses bring new hope and understanding.

You made me different from you, God. So different that I can never understand you. But, in doing that, you also opened a line of communication between us, one that leads inevitably back to You. Because my ways are different from your ways, you gave me your Word, and You do it to fulfill Your purpose, the one that is so different from mine. Your word does not return empty because it returns always to You.

Your word leads me to your thoughts, which lead me down your ways, the only path leading back to You.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

What Didn't Change

During the earliest years of his reign, King Solomon built a temple to the Lord. It was a big place of stone and wood and gold, artistically decorated by the best craftsmen with the most precious of materials. It spoke everywhere, by its shape and size and construction, of God's glory, but it did not just look beautiful. It also served as a place where man transacted business with the Almighty, very practical, down-to-earth business.

It spoke everywhere of God's desire for man to approach Him, from the presence of the altar upon which sacrifices burned, to the incense of prayer, from the enourmous basins in which men cleaned both themselves and their animals to make themselves presentable, to the light and bread that they always kept trimmed and fresh so as to make themselves constantly aware of their need for readiness. That approach, however, had a price.

The outer temple was a bloody place. Constant slaughter, burning, then purifying brought everyone before the Lord aware of the gap separating them from God. The inner parts , accessible only to the High Priest, threatened potential death. No one approached without the pause that comes from expending sweat and blood. One could not help but be aware that a terrible God beckoned there. Our modern worship has preserved little of this practical awe.

We no longer need animal sacrifice, of course. Jesus, the last and only perfect sacrifice, changed that. The very nature of God and the very nature of man did not change, however. God is still perfectly holy and we are still despicably sinful, something too easily forgotten amid our distant, sanitized, easy worship. No one notices the irony of what we have made of Christ's sacrifice. He tore down the veil separating God and man for all eternity, and we do not approach God's astounding reality. We have made Him comfortably human rather than what He remains: at once loving and fearsome.

Singing songs, praying in comfortable seats, dropping an offering envelope, and listening to a minister teach or admonish are all good things, but God, God, where is Your power, where are your thundering choruses, where are Your many rushing waters? Jesus sweat and bled as He transacted His eternal business. I do not believe that, when He said "Follow Me," He would have excluded this.

Therefore, since we receive a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful and so worship God acceptably, with reverence and awe.--Hebrews 12:28