Monthly Archives: January 2019

Listening For The Wind

Many of us, I would guess, go through spiritually depressed periods that feel like near-death experiences. On advice, we read the rich biblical texts that have helped so many others, yet our hearts remain as cheerless and lifeless as a cold fireplace. We try all the spiritual tonics, speak to all the wise people, who do all the spiritual aerobics, read all the books on the spiritual disciplines, and try the “seven steps” offered by the well-known authors—all to no avail. Our depression deepens, and despair begins to knock on the doors of our hearts.
All those cures are supposed to work! They appear to have worked for other people and churches, why not us? That they haven’t worked for us is a matter of real concern if we are serious about having a relationship with God that pleases rather than grieves Him, a relationship that involves our giving as well as receiving. But our prayers and promises—our vows, sworn in blood-red earnestness that we’d be better, speak better, do better, and think better—have all come to nothing. The vows were sincere—at least we thought they were—and they were made in agony. But when the passion cools, we feel that “the summer is gone and we are not saved.” Despair or near despair sets in. And why wouldn’t it? We share the poet’s distress:

Weary of passions unsubdued,
Weary of vows in vain renewed,
Of forms without the power,
Of prayers, and hopes, complaints, and groans,
My fainting soul in silence owns
I can hold out no more.

The words of the sufferer become ours, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning?” Psalm 22:1
And in our hearts, they aren’t words snarled in bitterness—they’re weary and disappointed rather than angry, because with our track record we can blame no one but ourselves. Still… still… we were hoping that God in His mercy would take sides with us against ourselves and deliver us for His own name’s sake in light of the promises He made.
“Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One; you are the praise of Israel. In you our fathers put their trust; they trusted and you delivered them. They cried to you and were saved; in you they trusted and were not disappointed.” 22:4-5

Wonderful stories. Salvation stories. True stories. But all the more distressing because they are true. Others called and were saved. We call and, instead of rescue, we continue to see ourselves as worms, and our “enemies” mock us even though we throw ourselves on God for deliverance. 22:6

So we lie down, exhausted, having despaired of ourselves and feeling that God must have despaired of us also. And as we lie in our silent graves with no earthly help that will make any difference, paralyzed by a crushing hopelessness, we hear the whisper of the wind; and the word of God comes to us again through a nation that was dead in sin and beyond all human help.
As a nation they had tried everything to stave off the death they richly deserved. They paid tribute until they were broke, made treaties with foreign powers, and sent ambassadors north, south, east, and west. They fortified cities and studied the ways of war. They even tried religion — they built altars and prayed. But there was no salvation in any of their efforts. They were all just new ways of speeding the death process, and they ended up in a national grave. Ezekiel 37:1-14

“Turn to me and be saved… for I am God, and there is no other.” Isaiah 45:22

Their bones were more than dry; they were “very dry.” And there weren’t only a few of them—the valley, like one giant coffin, was choked with them. The prophet spoke, and bone came together with bone; but there was no life—only a huge ravine full of skeletons. Sinews and flesh wound themselves around the bones, but there was no life—only a mighty gorge filled with corpses, an eerie, silent valley of corpses! Well, not absolutely silent. There was the wind. The man was told to speak the word of God to the wind, and the wind became the Spirit of God entering those lifeless figures—just as on the day of creation—and they were filled with life and stood on their feet, a mighty army. A nation alive from the dead!
And hearing their story, we’re persuaded to trust again—or at least not to not trust again. At this very moment, we may feel a sense of fatigue and hopelessness, but it’s not the end of the story. God—and may it please Him to be soon—will give us reason to rejoice as life courses through us, delivering us from one enemy after another. One day we’ll assemble to worship and feel compelled to turn to fellow-worshipers and speak of our deliverance. In the strength and joy of the Spirit of God, we’ll dismiss depression’s view of sadder days and say with the psalmist:

He has not despised or disdained
the suffering of the afflicted one;
He has not hidden his face from him
but has listened to his cry for help.
Psalm 22:24

And we, as our forefathers did, will enthrone God as the Holy One on the praise of our hearts. From Him will come the theme of our praise in the great assembly, Psalm 22:25 and our story will be told as one of deliverance to children not born, and people will trust because we were delivered. Psalm 22:30-31

And what is true of individuals can be true of whole congregations, and what is true of congregations can be true of cities and nations! What is true for others can be true for you. What is true for you can be true for me. Weep if you must, and tell Him your heart’s breaking—but trust, wait, and listen for the wind!

[With permission I took this from my book Where the Spirit of the Lord is. Simon & Schuster has it.]

 

All That’s For The Heart’s Lifting

He’s “King of Kings and Lord of Lords!” He’s the “Ruler of the princes/kings of the Earth!” He sits “Far above all rule and dominion, above all the powers, above every name that is named in this world and any other world, present or future!” He “is the Lord of the dead and of the living and the Lord of Sin, Death and Life itself!” In Him, “all things without limit ‘hold together’!” He’s “the Prince who brings peace and hope and assurance that on a coming day of His choosing all wrongs will be righted and both victims and their impenitent, exulting abusers will receive what unlimited wisdom and love with bring to pass!” When He was here, visible to the human eye, touchable by human hands and hearable by the human ear He revealed His Holy Father by going around healing and blessing and delivering and assuring and fiercely opposing and exposing injustice and greed and corrupt teaching!

He did all this in living! He rebuked disease in every form and ordered demonic power to leave; He confronted Death at funeral processions and in tiny bedrooms and with a word transformed sobs and heartache into laughter and praise that God had made Himself present there and He brought fellowship and self-respect to people who were shunned and isolated by their powerful and fearful neighbors. All this He did in living and He did no less in His dying—He did more in His dying because as he said Himself, “My Father loves Me because I lay down my life that I might take it again!” (John 10:17-18)
Like His Holy Father who sends the rain on the thankless, the evil, the rabid atheist, the godless abusers, the religious leaders who are whited-sepulchers and lukewarm believers Jesus gave and offered purpose and power, life and understanding to humans of every class. And He did it not only because they needed it—He did it to proclaim that this is what GOD wanted for them. In watching Him people were seeing without understanding that God was reigning in their presence, in their bodies and minds, in their homes and in their families, in their daughters and sons.

And it’s true—much of it was miraculous and could only be manifested by someone such as He was. But it was bigger than miraculous—the miracles were also messages within a grander message. In Him we’re not just seeing astonishing temporary transformations—in Him and what He did God was saying, “See Me! See what I’m offering you! See what kind of God I am! Don’t just see the miracles—don’t just see the bread that could be a meal for a family becoming a meal that fed thousands. See ME expressing My heart by healing and feeding and liberating! Try not to worry about why all weren’t healed and fed and liberated! Try not to wrestle with why I didn’t make Myself miraculously present at all times and everywhere—rejoice that I showed Myself anywhere at any time. Know that I Am! Know that in Jesus Christ you have seen Me and so, trust Me. Know through Him, the resurrected and glorified Lord Jesus, that I can be trusted and that a day will come, in the “fullness of time” when you in wide-eyed speechless joy will see that what I have done in a series of startling acts in Him was a revelation of the nature and unchanging character of my Kingship and reign. In Him you will learn that I am the same yesterday, today and forever.
“In Him did you ever see Me cruel or heartless? In Him did you ever see Me smile or shrug at injustice or greed? In Him did you ever hear me speak in profound anger to anyone but the powerful who dominated and humiliated the vulnerable they were supposed to protect and upbuild?
“I never ordained the torment of the human family. I find no pleasure in the awful pain of the human family; nor could I! But I created the human family with capacity to reject Me and my overarching purpose knowing that it would reject me and that agony would enter human experience. So I take responsibility for allowing cruelty and corrupt power to be part of the human condition because I choose to allow what I allow. But I joined you in and as Jesus of Nazareth to make it clear your hurt matters to Me and that it does not last forever and that it comes to a conclusion in an unending climax of inexpressible glory and justice for all, with unrepentant tyrants dealt with and everlasting LIFE for all embraced in my redemptive work. In the meantime in the light of His death see your own! In the light of His mission see your own purpose for being! In the light of His vision of Me, make it your own! See the rain and the sunshine the way He saw them—My gifts to all. Don’t doubt Me because right now not everyone everywhere experiences My gifts; be happy that anyone, anywhere, experiences them. I purpose all that enriches and is for the heart’s lifting. See the past miracles as tokens of My reigning presence in a world that’s lost its way by walking away from Me. Know through Him that My way of reigning is not by violence or corruption or sheer punitive means. Imagine how this world could have been and could be if the human family—if you, the Church—acted and thought and taught as He did and believed as He did.
In and as Him, within the limits of just one human life, I have experienced the hurt and the pleasure, the ugliness and the beauty, the glory and the gloom of life as a human. I have taken all that on Me as a human and by this I wanted you to know that I take your pain and loneliness seriously and in raising Him from the dead to an unending climax of all that is wondrous and right and joyously thrilling I show you who I am and what I’m about.
“You wouldn’t like me nor could you worship Me freely in love and joy if I were nothing but almighty power. You could never trust Me and gladly commit yourself and all your beloved ones to Me if I were heartless wisdom and self-centered in My limitlessness. You could never share with anyone a Story about Me if I loved only some of you that I have created and if I had purposed to bring only a select handful to life eternal. Believe Me, believe in Me and believe in Me through Him.

“And believe this, My work in Him has not ceased because you can no longer see Him (though you will see Him in a coming day). In light of Him I continue to express My kingly reign in its nature and purpose in the midst of My enemies (Psalm 110).

“A day of My choosing will come when My Lordship will be known to all but in the meantime remember this, you can see My reign in anyone, anywhere that you see human life respected, where leaders, men and women, nations and governments, reign in solidarity and unity, where a just and righteous order is sought and worked for, where orphans and widows, the vulnerable, powerless and voiceless are noted, where their pain is felt, where their needs are supplied or at least where the wise attempt is made to supply them; there, where human beings are given the opportunity to be what I intend them to be, THERE I am revealing My kingdom power! “Imagine these in One perfect One and this is My Beloved.” I am the Lord of all that is for the heart’s lifting!” (Much of this last paragraph is from Mortimer Arias.)

(Holy One, in your Beloved, the Lord Jesus, you have not only saved us for you and one another, you have saved yourself for us for in Him we see you in truth. Though there were and are times when due to our pain, our confusion, the gloomy teaching we’ve heard about you we might have serious doubts about you and your purpose toward us, the human family, in Him you have blessed us with a clear vision of who you are. Make it even clearer we ask through your Holy Scriptures and your work among us in daily living that we might admire you more, be empowered more with a grander view of you by the nearness of you. We’re coming to trust you more as we begin to see you more and more in Him through whom we offer this prayer. The Lord Jesus Christ.)

BUT JESUS…..

I suppose we all have a favorite character in literature—fictional or historical as well as the one we dislike most. I have little liking for the Marquis de Sade. One of his chief pleasures, he has someone say, was to “corrupt the innocent.” And Shakespeare’s sly conniving Iago is ugly down deep but personally the one who sets my teeth on edge is Hawthorne’s hateful Roger Chillingworth who in “righteous” viciousness torments, tortures his alienated young wife Hester and the weak young preacher Arthur Dimsdale.
You must sometime, if you are a reader, invest the time to read The Scarlet Letter. (Did I tell you I updated it and made it so much easier to read? Hawthorne’s style makes it very difficult for modern readers and it’s too great a book to miss. I added a few paragraphs to develop a few thoughts Hawthorne was making but the book fully remains Hawthorne’s. I hope you read it and allow his brilliant work to open your eyes and heart in many ways as it has done mine.) Believe me, “righteous” Chillingworth is alive and well in the world today.
But heroes! The countless unsung and unknown (except to a handful of the world’s billions)! Add to those the grand few who are known and worthy of praise—who can number them, eh? People who consciously lay down their lives in a single act of breathtaking generous self-giving and others (vaster in number) who lay down their lives by living and working for decades until their tired bodies and willing hearts can do no more. Exclude for the moment the obvious among us whose malevolence and delight in the demonic is so startling that all the social-sciences can’t come close to “explaining” it. There’s a power that we turned loose, a monstrous, stalking predator that is as cunning and well-disguised as it is vindictive and insatiable. Across the world there are places and there have been eras where it wore and wears no disguise but now that we are “wise” scientists, sociologists and psychologists and can explain all in terms of neurons, genetics, socio-psychology, cultural anthropology and more—without remainder. So much truth and wisdom there—not unwise or untrue in what it includes but blindness to what it excludes and so somewhere beyond human vision a cosmic parasite feeds on us. We see its work and mistake the undeniable destruction for the destroyer—and that too is the deep cunning of the predator, when the genuinely wise become fools even in their wisdom (Romans 1:21-22) and serve the great corrupter.
But I’ve drifted from my point. More than anyone else in the Bible I admire Moses. Of course he was flawed and of course he sulked and ran off and in a colossal sulk refused to circumcise his older boy and in that refusal withheld his firstborn from God (which is precisely why God dismantled Egypt—Pharaoh refused to give Him His firstborn (Israel). See Exodus 4:22–26 where God got Moses’ attention and made him focus on his mission. And yes he tried constantly to turn down the new commission to deliver Israel.
But what a man, what a burden, what ceaseless criticism and what a mesmerizing self-giving word to God in Exodus 32:32 (with chapter 33), “If you won’t take them home I don’t want to go either.” Forty years with a nation and its leaders breaking his heart, even his sister and brother joining in the attacks and then, precisely because he was so magnificent a leader and model, he is not permitted to enter the promised land though it broke his heart and he begged until God told him, “I don’t want you to speak to Me again about it.”  (Deuteronomy 3:24-26) Sinner or not, flawed or not, here was someone behind whose shadow a nation found freedom and shelter from the burning heat of life in a sad bad world. And he died in faith despite the onslaught of the World Hater who used everything and everyone against him. He wasn’t alone in this, it’s true, but was he not simply majestic? Women and men are listed in Hebrews 11 as people of “whom the world was not worthy.” And in Hebrews 3:1-5 the writer speaks of Moses in a marvelous and admiring way and then he immediately adds.

                                                                           BUT JESUS…………….

Finish the sentence in any way you wish. It’s no insult to Moses. On the mount of Transfiguration God said, “Don’t hear Moses, don’t hear Elijah, don’t hear John the Baptist, don’t hear David…..hear My Son.”

 

 

“Loving People In Slices?”

Somebody said that prominent people, like politicians and preachers, when they fall, always fall in the same areas: power, money or sex. There’s a lot of evidence around to establish that viewpoint. I don’t know if sexual infidelity in the 21st century is any more widespread and recurring than in centuries before; I only know I hear more about it and I tend to think it is.
I know that many of us have reason to be ashamed that we’ve broken the promise we gave to our beloved and we’re bitterly disappointed at our moral weakness and the sin we have committed in this area. The prevalence of such infidelity tempts us to believe that humans simply can’t keep such promises but thankfully there are tens of thousands among us who live and have lived splendidly in the limelight and who remind us that defeat is no foregone conclusion and that while there might be occasions when there was serious hand-to-hand fighting going on faithfulness is not beyond us. Job was a man like that!
In 31:1 he said this: “I made a covenant with my eyes not to look lustfully at a maiden.” Versions differ on how the text should be rendered. The NRSV and the ESV say, “I have made a covenant with my eyes; how then could I look on a virgin?” In either case this man had made up his mind to behave and having made that commitment, he wants to know (NRSV), how else could I have treated a girl?
He goes on to say (31:9-12), under oath, that he never went after other women and he didn’t lurk around his neighbor’s house to make moves on his wife. He says before the God who knows all things that he never did such things and he never did them because he had made an inner covenant that he had lived by. Job’s brave response to life on the ash-heap is inspiring but his princely response to life in the midst of unequalled success was stunning and glorious. To be true to the basic relationships and commitments in life is the kind of thing that turns God’s head and gets his admiration and makes so many of us groan in remorse and repentance and makes us vow to pursue honor.
That kind of faithfulness has its spin-off rewards. For one thing, when we do what’s right we don’t have to lament and grieve as Lancelot did. In Tennyson’s Arthurian legends no one was greater than Lancelot. Knight of knights, bravest of the brave, defender of the defenseless, fearless righter of wrongs, unbeatable warrior, sunny in disposition, known and acclaimed from one end of the kingdom to the other, daydream of countless young women’s hearts and sinner with another man’s wife!
At one point in his royal career Lancelot is terribly wounded and young Elaine nursed him from the point of death until he fully recovered, falling in love with him in the course of it all. Because her love for him was so deep and tender and because he was so enthralled with the king’s wife, Guinevere, and because he wants Elaine to think less of him and forget him—because all this was the case Lancelot rides off in pretended indifference, without a word to the girl who had saved his life and adored him.
In her despair and loneliness she kills herself. Lancelot is in agony when he hears of it and his guilty heart links this great wrong with his own great sin with Guinevere. King Arthur, apparently the only man in the kingdom who doesn’t know something is wrong, is telling Lancelot how wonderful he is and how revealing it was (despite its tragic nature) that a girl should love him so deeply as to take her life; again, this was proof of Lancelot’s greatness in the eyes of the king. But the sinner can bear no more praise and leaves to walk alone down by the river where he expresses his deep self-hatred and laments over the pain he brings to all around him.

For what am I? What profits my name
Of greatest knight?
I fought for it, and have it:
Pleasure to have it, none; to lose it, pain;
Now grown a part of me: but what use is it?
To make men worse by making my sin known?
Or sin seem less, the sinner seeming great?

He tells himself he has become used to having his wondrous reputation but finds no pleasure in it even though it would give him pain to lose it. Under God he has become a household word, people swear by his name and young men take him as the model for their lives but because of his sin his fame will weaken men’s hearts. Precisely because he has such fame the story of his shame will spread farther and discourage more, disappoint more, make more all the more cynical.
Or worse! When some men see someone as valiant as Lancelot involved in such sin will they not think it isn’t so bad? Might they dismiss the evil of the evil because they’re blinded by this man’s greatness? [“Well, when you’re as great as Lancelot, people have to make allowances.” Or, “Don’t make such a big deal of my corrupt behavior, even people as great as Lancelot have fallen.”]
Where Lancelot fell many a great man or woman has fallen. Now in the position to really help others they hurt them the more deeply. God having given them the eyes and the ears of the public they “make men worse by making their sin known or sin seem less the sinner seeming great.”
It wasn’t that way with the man from Uz. He lived in the open; he wasn’t tortured by hidden evil; he had made no sly deals in business, he corrupted no judges and he hadn’t behaved himself unjustly when he sat as judge. This was no lecherous old man who eyed the girls or made moves on another man’s wife. Not only did he not do what was wicked he didn’t think the evil thoughts because he had made a covenant with his heart and eyes in such matters.
He who couldn’t stand to see widows in need or orphans destitute and alone, who couldn’t bear to see the poor go hungry or cold, who wouldn’t dream of using his powerful position against anyone in court—he kept himself for one woman with whom he made a covenant of marriage. Was there ever such a glorious life as this man’s? Is it any wonder God’s eyes shone with admiration when he thought of him?

God and Job both knew he was a sinner. He says this in his own defense, “If I have concealed my sin as men do, by hiding my sin in my heart because I so feared the crowd and so dreaded the contempt of the clans that I kept silent and would not go outside…” (31:33-34). He takes it for granted that they know he’s a sinner but his sin didn’t characterize his life, it was the goodness of God in it that best described him. His life was an open book, he didn’t hide indoors if an accusation was made against him, refusing to face it publicly in case it made matters worse, hoping it would all blow over—no, he went out to face it and dealt with it in public as a public man should do. He rejoiced in what was noble and compassionate and that’s how he had been since boyhood (31:18). All that and he was also true to his wife!
For all the talk of sexual revolution and freedom and despite the fact that this generation is obsessed with sex, marital faithfulness is alive and well and even the silly soap operas continue to make a fuss in the plot over people who are unfaithful  to each other. To look at a husband or wife whose joy includes the rich satisfaction of knowing (without thinking too much about it) that they have kept faith with God and with someone else at a profound level—to look at them is to see one of life’s truly lovely sights. Let those sneer who want to but it isn’t loyalty and decency that’s on trial here; it’s the shabby behavior of the poor fool who hasn’t it in him/her to keep the covenant they’ve made.
Let me say it again, those of us who haven’t maintained that honor and integrity have plenty to regret but there are millions who not only don’t have “affairs” or “make moves” , they don’t even think about them. They’re too pleased with married life as it is, too pleased with life out in the sunlight that they don’t dream of sneaking around in the dark.
To live with guilty secrets; to be afraid that others will discover; to feel awkward in the company of someone who can’t keep from praising you, who trusts you—to look at your unsuspecting children, at his or hers; to be so ashamed that you can’t engage in noble ventures that need your help lest you bring them into disrepute should the truth come out—to live like that is to live in the shadows. Those of us who know what it is to have behaved shamefully know beyond debate that no amount of money, power or praise can make a sordid life sunny or a vile act excusable.
To love with no wish to love another in the same way; to keep your covenant cheerfully in the face of other influences; to lie beside that one and that one only in the gentle darkness is to live in the sunlight. No degree of poverty, no business failure, no being aware that we didn’t “make our mark in this life” can take that away or obliterate the luster of a life like that or fill it with unbroken gloom. To avoid not only the deed but also the sinister longing, the wishing, now that’s integrity. Job and millions of others had and have that and without feeling smug they rejoiced to know it. F.W. Robertson spoke about that kind of thing when he said:
“Beware of those fancies, those day dreams, which represent things as possible that should be forever impossible. Beware of that affection which cares for your happiness more than for your honor.”
Beware of anything that robs you of life in the sunshine!
And yet, try not to forget John 8:1-11 and Luke 15. Run on back home.

Nicholson has king Arthur saying to Lancelot:
“God uses people like you Lancelot because your heart is open You hold nothing back You give all of yourself.”
Lancelot: “If you knew me better you would not say such things”
Arthur: “I take the good with the bad together; I can’t love people in slices.”

(Holy One we take your holiness seriously and long to as does our Father but it is LIFE to us that your Holy Son was called “a friend of sinners” and that His every day among us convicting us, assuring us, healing us and helping us was you revealing yourself in Him.  Empower us to wisely love one another not in slices. It’s so hard for us even when we know that you don’t love us in slices.)

I’ve taken the heart of this from my Life On The Ash Heap book.