Friday, December 30, 2011

Covered by the Night

Nights stretch long at this time of year.  And sometimes, they weigh heavy, too.  In deep winter, I question more, consider longer, and lose resolve.  I feel weak, and I am not accustomed to weakness. 

What I feel, however, is not new.
From the ends of the earth, I call to you. I call as my heart grows faint. Lead me to the rock that is higher than I.--Psalm 61:2
I cried like a swift or a thrush. I moaned like a mourning dove. My eyes grew weak as I looked to the heavens. I am troubled, O Lord. Come to my aid!--Isaiah 38:14

I remember that life is not turning out the way I planned. I feel alone and helpless, still like a  baby when I thought to have figured some of life out. I expected to have gained some wisdom by now, but feel as unsure as ever.

God's message to me hasn't changed, however.
When anxiety was great within me, your consolation brought joy to my soul.--Psalm 94:19
Cast your cares on the Lord and He will sustain you. He will never let the righteous fall.--Psalm 55:22

What consolation, I wonder? I am not righteous. What sustenance can you offer, God?
And who is equal to such a task?--2Cor 2:16
Nothing good lives in me, in my sinful nature. I have the desire to do good, but I cannot carry it out.--Romans 7:18

I am a grown woman, but feel like a helpless child. Wisdom flies from me and I can't find the answers I need so badly.

This is the important part:
My grace is sufficient for you. My power is made perfect in weakness.--2Corinthians 12:9

When Jesus saw the faith of the paralytic, He said to him:
Take heart, son, your sins are forgiven.--Matthew 9:2

When He saw that the woman who had bled for twelve years looked for healing in only the hem of His robe, He said:
Take heart, daughter, your faith has healed you.--Matthew 9:22

You know that I am weak, Lord. But You come in the very weakest hour. You look for my faith and the instant You see it, lift me up. In the flesh, I am bare, completely uncovered, without protector. But You cover me. My only unreserved attachment must be to You. Life falls short. Neither husbands nor children nor aspirations fill the void. But as I look to You, You do. Only faith, by sheer grace, makes us well.

My soul will be satisfied as with the richest of foods. With singing lips I will praise You. On my bed I will remember You. I think of You through the watches of the night.--Psalm 63:5-6

The night still covers me. I am still unaccustomed to weakness, but God is enough.

Monday, December 26, 2011

The Ultimate Family Reunion

For many, the holidays are all about togetherness.  We go over the river and through the woods, promising to be home for Christmas where we sometimes catch a glimpse Mommy kissing Santa Claus.  Of course, rubbing up against relatives sometimes falls short of expectations, but that's OK.  We already enjoy a perfect family relationship. 

First, we are God's inheritance and He is ours:
When the Most High gave the nations their inheritance, when He divided all mankind, He set up boundaries for the people according to the number of sons of Israel, for the Lord's portion is His people, Jacob His allotted inheritance.--Deuteronomy 32:9

God is our foundation and we are His building:
For we are God's fellow workers.  You are God's field, God's building.--1Cor 3:9

God has sacrificed for us and we sacrifice to Him:
You, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to Christ Jesus.--1Peter 2:5

We belong on one another.
All things are yours...all are yours and you are of Christ and Christ is of God.--1Corinthians 3:22

God sends us His glory and we return it through Christ.
All I have is yours and all you have is Mine.  And glory is come to Me through them.--John 17:10

What we enjoy with Christ is more than a family reunion.  We share hope, hope for more than a distant heaven.  We share the realization of God's design and promise.  In fact, this relationship is heaven, and it begins now.

God assigns us fathers, mothers, spouses, and children as objects of service.  We share love and experiences with them, but we can't forget that the Creator of the universe has welcomed us into a relationship that predates and supersedes them.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

What You Said

In a universe yet unspoken, swirled in dark chaos, You ruled, breathless and complete. Before making, before matter, before motion, You knew men not yet shaped, not yet sinned. Simultaneous Creator, King, Emmanuel, Savior. While time waited, You said,

I am the Word made flesh.”

In a dark rush of hot blood mixed with new life’s water, You burst forth in first breath. Already living man, already Incarnate God. Sacrifice awaiting slaughter, already laid on the altar of the world. Another crimson flow forecast, Holy and Eucharist, Body and Blood, poised beneath the waiting knife, You said,

I am the Bread of Life.”

In a rude manger whose splinters spoke the thorns’ prophecy, You cried new tears. The spine not yet become a spear, the burr not yet become a scourge, the branch not yet become a crown, from sapling to stump, from cradle to cross, You would too soon carry wood that now carried you. As your pain bloomed, You said,

I am the Vine.”

In the cold, ignorant night after four hundred silent years, You lit an only star. Halting the great wheel of heaven, leading three staunch kings, confounding one royal fool, this blaze of celestial glory ended in a sad hill’s forsaken dark. Although “My God, My God” consummated the alleluia, and despair shrouded all, You said,

I am the Light of the World.”

In an unwary stable, serenaded by angelic choir, You dreamed, Victorious King, and heard:
This is my Son.”
It is Finished.”
He is risen.”
You saw sin and hell laid waste, temptation’s dark angel aflame, the fallen fruit of your own imagination returned in tearless triumphant reunion through heaven’s gates flung wide.
All this, and yet a baby. You said,

I AM.”

Merry Christmas

Monday, December 19, 2011

Wiser than We Thought

Gold. Frankincense. Myrrh. Ask someone about the part played in the Christmas story by the three wise men and you will most likely hear about the gifts they brought to baby Jesus. It figures. Mention Christmas and the focus goes right to gifts. In this story, however, as in our customary gift-heavy celebration of the holiday itself, we have missed something very important.

First, these wise men were not just some smart guys who decided to take a trip together. These men were kings, rulers of ancient realms. They commanded wealth and armies. They owned slaves and employed servants. Normal relations with neighboring kingdoms usually involved battle, not field trips. But on this occasion, they did not send emissaries. And they ignored, for this venture, their differences.

Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.--Matthew 2:2

Kings do not visit other baby kings. Rulers of the ancient Orient did not like one another. They were more likely to send a spy or an assassin than bring a gift. Obviously, something here was different.

On coming to the house, they saw the child with His mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped Him.--Matthew 2:11

They worshiped Him. The gifts were symbolic, gold and spices, but they came for another purpose. They came to worship.

As I look at my Christmas preparations--the baking, the decorations, the tree, and, of course, the mound of gifts--have I remembered what those kings knew? In that first Christmas season, they put away their privilege and prejudice to bow down before the King of Kings. They made themselves humble in a foreign land, disregarding custom, to worship the Son of God.

Forget the gifts. They don't matter. Forget the gifts and worship the baby. It's worth the trip.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Open It, for Heaven's Sake!

I like to give gifts. Most of us do, I think, and while we do, we imagine the delight of the recipient--their quick smile, their laugh, their grateful hug. Consider, then, a scenario in which we give our loved one something we hope they will treasure, but, after they unwrap it, they say it just doesn't fit, that surely we should have given them something else. In reality, loved ones probably don't tell us this, but we do.  We do it all the time regarding one of the best gifts we ever received. We do this with our lives.

God gave us life. A human, heartbeating, blood coursing, emotion-filled life. He did not do this by accident.

God made me human. I am born flesh, not spirit. I live as a human, not an angel. God does not want me to deny or eschew what He has bestowed in order to try to be something else. Yes, I must repent from my sin, but He does not want me to apologize for life. God tells me to live.

True, Paul tells me to die to myself. He does not mean, however, to die completely. In putting aside my sin, my selfishness, my pride, I do not put aside my life. It may feel like it, but I do not. Instead, faith and obedience to God sanctifies me, dedicates the life I live in the flesh to God. Living my life in the flesh for God makes me holy.

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

God gives human beings life, this day and every day, and declares it the stage upon which He wants us to reflect His own Self. He made it specifically for us as a gift. He does not give us life for us to treat it as a drudge or a burden. Neither does He expect us to be spiritual beyond what the bounds of our flesh permit.  

God wants us to appreciate life exactly as He gave it to us, to value it and enjoy it within His ordained parameters, and as we do this, to see His glory.  He wants us to live as beloved men and women, sure that our humanity is not a mistake, but a design blessed by God.

We are not perfect, but are loved beyond our imperfection.

I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.--Psalm 27:18

Open your gift.  Live.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

And They Opened Their Mouths...

Did you ever listen to Handel's "Messiah"? Not just the Hallelujah Chorus, but the whole thing? What a triumphant picture! It recalls the entire miracle of God's presence on earth, from annunciation to resurrection, bursting out at intervals in unbridled praise as though Handel simply can't control his amazement. And, as result, neither can we. I like those parts the best...

"Glory to God, Glory to God, Glory to God in the Highest...
Who is the King of Glory, Who is the King of Glory?....
Wonderful, Counselor, Almighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace..."

We went yesterday to listen to this beautiful work and, somewhere along the line, I realized that, in order for us to hear it, a lot of gifted people had to open their mouths and lift up their voices. They had to use what God had given them to His glory, and I was smitten by the result.

The choristers were not being 'spiritual' when they did this. They sang. They just sang. And God burst from them as juice from a ripe fruit.

I don't know how many of them believed in the miracles they sang about, but some of them obviously did. These men and women sang not to exalt themselves, but as conduits, as passageways, for God to declare Himself. In other words, they fulfilled the purpose for which God created them and the duty to which He commands us all:

Give unto the Lord the glory due to His name; worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.--Psalm 29:1-2

It's simple, really. Live because God gave you life. Worship Him in it.

We can never give to God more than He deserves. We can never pay Him back for when He did for us, but we can use the thing He did give us--our life--in His service.

God gave us life because He wants us to live it.

He gave us love because He wants us to know love. He gave us the sweetness of taking a clean breath, the pleasure of flowers, the inspiration of music, the satisfaction of food and drink. He wants us to enjoy them all, not bottle them up.

God gave those singers beautiful voices not just to sing in the shower, although they probably do that. He did not give them voices just to croon a lullaby for their restless baby, though they can do that, too. He certainly did not give them those voices to compete on American Idol. He did not intend that these voices make them self-aware or satisfyingly self-congratulatory.

God gave them voice for one purpose: to proclaim His glory and in that proclamation, bring delight both to the singer and the listener. When bottled up, the song stagnates. When let loose and shared, it fulfills its purpose.

We could go through life just following God's rules--His Thou-Shalt-Nots--but we will miss the glory God gave in giving us life. We were meant to exceed His law, to grab this life and squeeze it out for God's glory, to let its goodness incubate and bloom in us, broadcasting its seed everywhere in our wake.

Who is the King of Glory? Who is the King of Glory?

Wonderful, Counselor, Almighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace!


Saturday, December 10, 2011

Petting the Tiger--Long Arms are Harder to Bite

Sometimes we forget that teeth and claws are dangerous. Yesterday, my sister related her latest adventure at an exotic animal rescue facility. The day she visited, they had three tiger cubs she got to pet and play with. Still too young to have teeth or claws, they frolicked like any other kitten--jumping, rolling, cuddling. She remembered, luckily, that in a matter of weeks, these little balls of fur would mature into the wild cats they were born to be and the kind of play she enjoyed that day would become impossible, but for then, she could relax in the company of a wild beast.

I couldn't help thinking about the dangers we, as Christians, sometimes toy with.

The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons.--1Timothy 4:1

If you study the Scriptures, you know that these are the last days. The dangers described surround us now, and in growing measure as years pass, every bit as dangerous as a tiger's teeth. We tend to think that we are safe in church but, as Timothy tells us, we are not. Believers today are not immune to the same temptations suffered by pharisees and pagans in Christ's time. Sanctified zealousness easily becomes crippling legalism. Yearning for the Spirit develops into charismatic idolatry.

We embrace appealing leaders too tightly, even in the church, if Christ is not in place as our only head.

We strain our ears to hear a word from God, so eager to share divine knowledge that we fail to adequately test what we hear. We trust experienced men and women of faith to lead us toward God and sometimes they do, but sometimes they do not.

Anything that comes through the lips or pen of another human being is suspect, and grows more so with every passing year.

Unfortunately, our love for God often becomes too entwined with our love for His people and the vine that should be Christ's alone eventually takes on other faces.

When this happens, be ruthless. I have to sift everything I hear from everybody through what God says in the Bible. No exceptions. It's not easy. I want to believe what God's people tell me. In the end, though, looking to one another rather than standing side by side and looking together to Christ always brings calamity.

Just as a longer arm more easily holds a soon-to-be-dangerous tiger cub at bay, so does our longer spiritual arm when it reaches past a dear and familiar world directly to God. He wants us to do this. He wants us to look directly into His face and to say, like Samuel,

Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.--1Samuel 3:10

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Paul's Secret

The apostle Paul said that he was content in all circumstances. Well, I am not. I do not like sickness, trouble, or outright adversity. I do not like bad weather, hard days, or crabby people. Frankly, I do not think that he did either. Nobody does.

So what exactly did he mean?

I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation...Philippians 4:12

Paul needed to learn a secret in order to achieve this contentment. Well, Paul, give it up, will you?

I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus as my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things.--Philippians 3:4

His secret was knowing Christ. He gave up everything for this secret. He began life educated and influential, met Jesus, and left it all behind. Without money or power, Paul leaned only on faith in Christ, and he found it plenty. This was his secret.

But, be careful in this. He did not find faith by the giving up of money and power. Practical trouble and poverty do not automatically usher in faith--they are not admission into the throne room of God. We do not become holy by experiencing privation. And yet...

Trouble does seem to follow believers, however, doesn't it? Sometimes seemingly more than for unbelievers. What's up with that, God?

It's really not that hard to understand. Simply put, adversity endured brings faith, not because we are rescued out of trouble, but because God comes to us in the middle of it to a degree we never otherwise see.

"Oh, God," we say when things are good..."You are powerful and mighty and faithful. I love you." And it's true.

But when times are tough, and the sun begrudges its rising, and we wonder why in the world God opened our eyes on another sad day, to say "Oh God, You are mighty and powerful and faithful. I love you," means something quite different. On those days, we know that we know, and something firm and strong is built in us, a bulwark that supports and carries with all the assurance the love of an almighty God brings.

We pray so often for rescue from our troubles, forgetting that God comes on the wing of trouble more vividly than any other time. Trouble is more than how we grow--it is where we meet the Living God, able to see His glory.

I have been reading Paul wrong. He was not content with nasty circumstances any more than I am. He did not enjoy his troubles, but he did enjoy what God brought through them--abiding faith that comes not from rescue from them, but from having met God in them.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Get Over It--From Faith to Forgiveness

I've heard it said that we live in an age of the perpetually offended. There's some truth in that, I guess. It certainly seems like we do a great deal of tiptoeing around, working too hard to avoid the unpleasantness of strong opinion or the disagreement of firm belief. Sometimes, I just want to scream, "Get over It!"

Unless, of course, I'm the one needing to do the getting over.

I do not like being hurt, ignored, or betrayed any more than anyone else, but it happens, and God has clear instructions for me when it does:

If your brother sins, rebuke him and, if he repents, forgive him. If he sins against you seven times in a day and seven times comes back to you and says, "I repent," forgive him.--Luke 17:3-4

God says forgive. He uses small words and short sentences, but the task is not easy. After Jesus explained the need to forgive to the apostles in the above passage, they, during one of their rare moments of clarity, knew exactly what they needed to do it.

The apostles said to the Lord, "Increase our faith!"--Luke 17:5

It takes extra faith to forgive. While unforgiveness has its roots in self-interest and earth-bound understanding, forgiveness steps out of these and casts all of our lot into God's lap. That's why we need faith.

Unforgiveness keeps the focus on us. Forgiveness keeps our focus on God.

Forgiveness operates by the same spiritual mechanisms as obedience. I can neither obey nor forgive if I make earthly justice and my own way the goal. Obedience and forgiveness only happen when I see God rather than myself. I must forgive and obey not because I think I can, but because God tells me to.

Forgiveness and obedience may outwardly change nothing. They right no wrongs, ease no hurts. They do, however, draw me directly to the side of Christ and from there, all things are possible.