a song for the prodigals

Arise, cry out in the night,
At the beginning of the watches;
Pour out your heart like water before the face of the Lord.
Lift your hands toward Him
For the life of your young children,
Who faint from hunger at the head of every street.
(Lamentations 2:19)

We are living in a time of unimagined and unimaginable change.

For countless numbers of young people, their inner self, that person created in the image of the Shining One, has never completely known full release, or surrender, or free joyful connection. It has always been dogged and pursued by a clinging to desire in the infantile crying for indulgence.

There is in every person a longing to be cherished, so that we might be free to express the glory that throbs within us, that exists because we are each an echo of a magnificent, originating Proclamation. We all, with force and gentle fury of tears, and aching longing, stretch and reach for truth, truth unfettered, the real Truth, Truth that reaches to me and tells me I can be free, that I can shake off the clinging accoutrements of flesh tainted by the world and thoughts corrupted by the customs and rituals of a world that has been twisted and tainted.

We try to make sense of our lives and our world through the stories we hear, the stories we tell, the stories we have lived and hope to live. We try, often without success, to listen to each other’s stories, because to hear stories that are true, stories that expose the grit and gristle underneath our skin, is to be alive and connected and aware and comprehending. Through comprehension comes compassion—the “suffering with”—and the opportunity to love.

And so, in our attempts to understand we reach for beauty and goodness and justice, and we are surprised to find that beneath our grasping is a Voice. What is this inner Voice that silences loud clamor in its quietude; that is more powerful than bitterness in its gentleness, that lays claim to me in its respectful wooing, that is undeniably insistent in its profound patience? My heart tears, and burns, and weeps for the purity offered even as other parts of me launch out, or lash out, in confusion and desire that has been twisted into self-satisfaction. And in that is the struggle, and the shame, and the opportunity for overcoming. In that is the invitation into intimacy, which is holiness. In that is the call to follow and surrender.

Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12)

I always thought the surrender had to proceed the follow: a sort of entry into the deeper paths of discipleship, (or even the primary, introductory path, if truth be known). But I have come to learn that the “follow” precedes the “surrender.” I don’t mean that we must retain our independence until we determine if we are willing to belong to our Creator. I simply mean that there are standards we simply cannot meet; there is a call we simply cannot attain to; there is a love required that we are insufficient to give; there is a commitment and a holiness that we are woefully unprepared for and unable to even desire, until we have made the decision to simply trust and follow. He, the Shepherd, can be trusted. He can be believed. He can be obeyed, and because we are watching him, seeing where he goes, listening to the Voice, he has promised that he will, in truth, be available to the deep caverns within each of us where our little egos and fragile identities curl and hide, then stretch and preen and posture, and then in sudden terror pull back and curl again. We are turtles retreating into shells of pity, of remorse, of shame and guilt and fear.

We pretend to have genuine complaints against all the world and all its evil, but we are actually aware that the evil comes mainly from within; it is simply easier to condemn and to convict all the others out there  for wickedness that begins with me. But anguish of soul, the sweet and aching pain of a promise that I can dimly perceive, but never quite attain, is the force and the enticement that draws me on the path I wish to follow, even as other tattered and smelly enticements beckon and even capture for a time. And once again, the ugliness of pig’s food brings me to my senses, and I declare that I will return again to my Father’s house, where there is rich food to spare. The promise of that home, and the recognition of a beauty that I truly desire, is why I return again, and again, and again. Selfishness seeks regency; but the more I turn back and follow yet again, and relinquish my grasp on my own desires, seeking to live under the care of the One greater than all the stars, and be led into green pastures beside still waters, then I am able to look and see what my heart has always longed for. Then I behold the face that is always fully beholding me, though I only perceive dimly even as I run other comforts, behaving as if I were a madman.

But he beckons again, and calls again, “Follow Me.” And that is enough.

mo(u)rning will come

Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground and woshiped. And he said… ‘The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.
For I know that my Redeemer lives,
and at the last he will stand upon the earth.’
Job 1:20-21 & 19:25 .

When a couple struggles with infertility, each month is a roller coaster of emotion. Hope, dread, excitement, despair; the monthly cycle of fertility is something that they become intimately—almost fanatically—aware of. A woman’s perception of the changes in her body is fine-tuned to an astonishing degree.

It was that way for my wife Kathi after many years of us trying to have a baby.

We had adopted a daughter, and then Kathi became pregnant with our first-born son, but we wanted more children, and felt that God had promised us more children. But still we struggled to see her become pregnant, so when the joyous event happened again, we were aware of it within just a couple of weeks of conception.

And we were ecstatic.

But we all know that life doesn’t always allow us to remain that way; in fact, many would say that life rarely allows it. One morning, almost five months into the pregnancy, Kathi awoke and realized she was hemorrhaging, and began to have cramps. She felt panicked, I felt panicked, and we put in a frantic call to our doctor, who told us to wait a little while before coming in, in case the bleeding stopped.

While I waited, impotent and sick with worry, our two small children sat with me at our kitchen table in the early morning stillness, and we prayed that God would “please, protect the baby in Mommy’s tummy.”

The bleeding got worse, so with hearts in our throats we dropped our children off with friends and drove to our doctor’s office, and she couldn’t find our baby’s heartbeat, so clinging to a frayed thread of hope-against-hope we went to the hospital to get an ultrasound. Something was obviously wrong, but we thought maybe there was still a sliver of a chance that it would be okay. Maybe things were not as they seemed.

And as Kathi lay on a cold, sterile table, the technician performed the test, and then a kind doctor informed us our baby had died. She was a little girl, and she was dead, and she needed to be removed.

We all go through a sense of emptiness with the death of those we care about. We instinctively recoil from death. Even though some people will declaim that death is “just part of life,” deep within we all know that is simply not true. Everything inside us screams against it. Our reaction is not simply from fear or self-preservation or an inbuilt protection of our species: it is an angry, agonized howl against an unnatural enemy; it is the violent rejection of a vicious and cruel thief and liar. Death is not natural, death is not a gift of rest; death is a horror. Death is unspeakable, and when a child dies it is nearly unendurable.

Miscarriage is death, but it is a strange kind of death, and a nightmare for the parents. When death happens inside the womb, there is a feeling of something dreadfully incomplete, a cruel mocking of even the opportunity for parents to grieve deeply in a socially acceptable way. We found it was difficult to explain to people who had not experienced it. We felt searing anguish, and of course, people wanted to help. Well-meaning friends and sympathetic strangers told us “It’s probably better that you never saw her” or “That’s so sad, but you can have another one.” But it wasn’t better that we didn’t see and know and hold our child, even if it could have been just for a few minutes. We were devastated by the cruelty of it; we were robbed of the chance to at least give her one last kiss, and lovingly place her in a little casket, and say goodbye surrounded by family. She was just gone—scooped out of Kathi’s uterus and disposed of; so much useless tissue.

So yes; we hoped another baby would come. But this baby was special; this baby was unique and desired; this baby had, in just a few months, captured our hearts with dreams and hopes. We had never seen her, but we had fallen head-over-heels in love with her, and couldn’t wait to welcome her.

But she was gone.

We walked out of the hospital in grey, cold winter, to an empty car, with empty arms, an empty womb, and empty hearts. We sat for a while in silence. There was nothing to say.

I wanted words of comfort for my grieving wife. I wanted wisdom that would make it, if not better, at least bearable. My heart was shredded, and I realized Kathi had to be working through a shrieking agony of soul that no words could touch. So, without words, we wept.  

But we came to realize that, just as Job said, our redeemer lives, and because of that there can be hope and restoration in any tragedy. We began to be comforted by the realization that our little Alexandra was not really gone; she was in the presence of Life and Love himself. She gazed with open eyes and innocent awareness at her perfect Father. She would never be subject to the pain and bittersweet anguish we all go through journeying this life. She was aware, far better than us, of how short a time it truly would be until we met her in fullness, met her in a place and with understanding that transcends any earthly connection.

The LORD gives, and takes away–and gives. Two years after our baby’s death, Kathi became pregnant again, and gave birth to our little daughter Amy, who has grown into a beautiful married woman. Her husband Luke is a fine and godly young man, and to us is more a son than a son-in-law.

And—in the incredible paradox of coincidence that can only come from God, the day after we lost our baby, across the country in Ohio, a little baby girl named Brittany was born. This girl grew up and went to college in Tennessee, and met our son Corey who had traveled there from California, and they married have given us three precious grandsons who fill our hearts with laughter and love and joy.

The ways of God are mysterious and incredible, inscrutable, frustrating—and even sometimes tormenting. But Kathi and I have learned to not regret the parts of our story that contain excruciating pain. The darkness of grief contrasts with the light of joy. Colors of rejoicing are made richer and fuller with the depth that comes from shadow; our laughter is more vivid and complete by the dark contrast of weeping; a chiaroscuro that gives life dimension and hope solidity. Every life is a painting, but if it is made up of only bright and shiny hues, then it is just pop art, a garish display of mawkish illusion. If we rightly respond to pain, and let Jesus speak to us and comfort us and teach us in our darkness, we always receive reward. Today’s emptiness leads us into greater appreciation of tomorrow’s fullness.  

This is not wishful thinking or misty-eyed fantasy. When we look to our God and trust him with our lives and the lives of our loved ones, we gain greater perspective of his great goodness, and we find ourselves continually enriched, strengthened, and restored in the rainbow of eternal possibilities shining through the dark clouds of our present sorrows.

what happened before will happen again (with kathi pelton)

The children of Israel stood before the waters of the Red Sea, frozen in fear because the mighty army of Egypt, under the command of a vicious and cruel Pharaoh, had pursued them and were about to overtake them, bringing destruction. The LORD told Moses to stretch out his staff over the waters. Moses did and the waters parted, allowing Israel to cross over on dry land. God Himself protected His people; Scripture says He “looked at the army of the Egyptians through the fire and cloud and caused the army of the Egyptians to panic” (Exodus 14:24, TLV). Israel was delivered from bondage to what was the strongest nation on earth at that time.

David was a shepherd boy, young, “ruddy and handsome”; a lad who was consigned to the outlying grasslands to oversee his father’s sheep. When a fearsome giant named Goliath, champion of the Philistines, challenged Israel and Israel’s God to fight, young David took up the challenge. Goliath taunted and mocked him, despising the diminutive youth before him. But David, filled with trust in the Almighty, bellowed in response,

“You are coming to me with a sword, a spear, and a javelin, but I am
coming to you in the Name of ADONAI-Tzva’ot, God of the armies of
Israel, whom you have defied. This very day ADONAI will deliver you into
my hand, and I will strike you down and take your head off….Then all the
earth will know that there is a God in Israel, and so all this assembly will
know that ADONAI delivers not with sword and spear—for the battle belongs
to ADONAI, and He will give you into our hands” (1 Samuel 17:45-47, TLV).

Then David, trusting fully in the faithfulness of Israel’s God, ran toward his huge opponent and felled him with one smooth stone flung from his sling.

Daniel was a faithful servant of God who dwelt in Babylon, and distinguished himself serving in the courts of various pagan rulers. At one point, various other governors plotted against Daniel, due to their jealousy at his impeccable performance of his official duties, and succeeded in having Daniel sentenced to be thrown into a lion’s den. But God preserved Daniel’s life, and he was able to stand in the midst of the dangerous beasts, and declare to Darius, the ruler who sentenced him, My God sent His angel and shut the lions’ mouths, so that they have not hurt me, because I was found innocent before Him….”  (Daniel 6:22).

Esther was a young woman, taken from her people to become one of the wives of Xerxes I, king of the world-dominating Persian Empire. When she learned of a plot to destroy her people that had been hatched by one of the king’s high-level officials, she took heed of her uncle Mordecai’s counsel when he told her she must do something, because she had risen to her position “…for such a time as this” (Esther 4:14). Esther, risking her own life, devised a plan to approach the king and reveal her identity as well as the plot against her people. The king was enraged that one of his own advisors would do such a thing, and had him executed. Esther’s bravery saved her life and delivered the lives of all the Jews who had been threatened. To this day, Esther’s story is remembered and celebrated each year with the joyous festival of Purim.

Jesus walked among the people of Israel, bringing hope and life, truth and mercy—delivering God’s message of light for those who dwelled in darkness. He healed all those with diseases, opened blind eyes, delivered the oppressed from demons, and raised the dead to life.

And like the writer of Hebrews, time would fail us if we were to begin to attempt to describe the many other epic miracles listed in Scripture. We have also read or heard about the miracles that have followed the prayers of believing saints for two thousand years since Jesus’ death and resurrection.

We know that God is blowing a fresh wind of His Spirit through His people, and there have been promises of a great outpouring as we draw nearer to the time of the end. So we wonder: Will feats of this magnitude happen again?

We have the promise—spoken by Jesus Himself—that we can expect to do even more than the exploits we have known about from the past.

I tell you the truth, whoever believes in me will do the same works I have
done, and even greater works, because I am going to be with the Father”
(John 14:22).

The Son of God desires to glorify the Father, and we are His chosen and beloved who desire to respond to His love and glorify Him because He is worthy. The oneness that is created as God’s people yield to the desire of the Son is releasing a convergence of the ages. God’s faithful remnant has aligned with the works and ways of Jesus, revealed to all mankind as He walked among us.

The Holy Spirit has graciously moved through His people, gently and firmly leading us into lives of submission and dependency. We no longer dwell in the land of shadows, living in partnership with an independent spirit that seeks primarily our own good, that advances our own goals and agendas, that clings to comfort and safety.  While He was on earth, Jesus showed us how to live a life fully committed to advancing the kingdom of God. He displayed a life of obedience that fully pleased and glorified the Father; this is the kind of life we were all meant for. He explained this to the rigid religious leaders who accosted Him after He performed the miracle of healing at the pool of Bethesda. When they criticized Him, He responded,

“Most assuredly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of Himself, but what He sees the Father do; for whatever He does, the Son also does in like manner. For the Father loves the Son, and shows Him all things that He Himself does; and He will show Him greater works than these, that you may marvel (John 5:19-20).

So, we are not consumed with false identities we have created for ourselves, keeping to foolish and rigid rules of behavior that we think will make us more acceptable to God. Instead, our Lord calls us out of the religious edifices we have constructed and woos us into deeper communion with Him, creating in our spirits a unity with Jesus that calls out, just as He cried out in Gethsemane, “…not My will, but Yours, be done” (Luke 22:42).

From our posture of humility, in oneness with the heart of our King, we have the joy of experiencing miracles once again. Our relationship creates a platform where heaven and earth come into a holy alignment; our agreement with the plans and purposes of God creates a womb where miracles are conceived; they are enabled in us and through us as the fruit of oneness. Just as a husband and wife become one flesh in intimacy, which leads to the miracle of new life, so does new birth spring forth from the union of the bride of Christ as we function in oneness with the desire of our beloved Jesus.

Then the greater works cascade from God’s people; a crystal flow of the living water of the presence of the Lord, breathtaking in purity and glorifying the Father, the Son, and the Spirit.

pleased to know you

Zion is called to rejoice in God because God rejoices in her. She is to shout for joy and sing because God’s joy too has a voice, and breaks out into singing. For every throb of joy in man’s heart, there is a wave of gladness in God’s. The notes of our praise are at once the echoes and the occasions of His. We are to be glad because He is glad: He is glad because we are so. We sing for joy, and He joys over us with singing because we do.
Alexander MacLaren, Zion’s Joy and God’s (exposition on Zephaniah 3.)

God enjoys our presence. He loves to hear us laugh and sing, and He sings over us with His own songs of joy as we live and eat and work and play.
Preston Sprinkle, Charis: God’s Scandalous Grace for Us

Many Christians with sensitive consciences carry unwelcome and uncomfortable baggage in the form of a nagging feeling that “something isn’t quite right,” suffering a kind of low-grade spiritual fever that enervates and leaves them lethargic. Their prayer life is mainly duty; they wonder why it is difficult to feel deeply engaged with God’s presence, and they are troubled by their lack of zeal for the things of God–especially after they have fallen short in some way, whether through inadvertent stumbling, or deliberate compromise or rebellion. They echo the cry of David, “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.” (Psalm 51:3.)

It is important to realize that the Lord never intended to have a family that focused on its failures. However, such an idea arouses our inner Pharisee, who with puffed chest and foaming disapproval, bellows: What! Would you minimize your sin? How then will you remain pure before the Lord?  

We need to repent of sin; yes. We must watch and pray–yes; and humble ourselves under the mighty hand of God–indeed, yes; and love and encourage each other–yes and amen! It is vital that we humbly submit our lives to God’s love and counsel and rule. He has called us to holiness because He is holy. Paul reminds us that we have the promise that we are sons and daughters of God–He is our loving Father and He dwells with us–and because of that, we can cleanse ourselves of defilement, “perfecting holiness in the fear of the Lord.” (2 Corinthians 6:17–7:1.) And the beautiful, wonderful reality hidden in that truth is that He is the LORD Who Sanctifies us! (Exodus 31:13.) It is His power; it is His work. He accomplished our salvation not only because He loves us, but also for His own sake and glory (Isaiah 43:25; 53:10; Ephesians 2:4-7).

Because that is true, then continually bemoaning and bewailing our sin and foolishness does not honor our Father, nor does it show gratitude for the astonishing, eternal redemption purchased and provided for us by Jesus our Savior. We have available to us His “once for all” sacrifice (Hebrews 10:10-14; 1 Peter 3:18)  and the “how much more” cleansing through His blood (Hebrews 9:11-14).

So, access into the presence of our Lord is a gracious, glorious privilege–a wonder. We are wanted; we are loved; we are passionately urged to draw near. Through faith in Jesus, we have been sanctified–set apart, dedicated, and made holy–so that we may have intimate communion with the eternal Holy One, who is purity and love. But beyond every magnificent benefit to us is the overarching reality that what we experience is for the glory of God Himself. When we are in right relationship with Him and with each other (Matthew 22:37-40), then creation resonates with the wonder of His name and opens the way for His will to be done on earth as it is in heaven.

God’s desire is that all His creation would flourish. He delights in our flourishing. He is grieved when we fail to live as we ought; when we gratify ourselves with paltry pleasures, defiled by lust and greed and seduced from genuine joy by cheap promises of exhilaration and the hubris of self-sufficiency. He is dismayed also when we cower away from Him in dread, quivering and whimpering with self-loathing.

We were meant to find our identity and our fulfillment in Him. By walking in fellowship with our Maker we discover who we are actually meant to be. But that does not involve working, grasping, clawing to “enter in.”  We are drawn in; we are desired. Our Father knows completely who we are, and who we will become.

But some cry out, I have done so much wrong; I don’t know how to come near Him; I do what I shouldn’t do, and don’t do what I ought to do! I am so weary, and I’m not sure I even desire to “press in.”

Is your heart cold? That is nothing when you are face-to-face with unquenchable flame (Daniel 7:9-10; Hebrews 12:28-29). Have you been foolish, selfish? Your actions do not supersede or negate His wisdom working in you (Proverbs 1:20; 1 Corinthians 1:21-30). Your stubbornness is not enough to shake off His “easy yoke” (Matthew 11:29). Your isolation cannot shut out the One to whom the darkest night is as bright as day (Psalm 139:12). Your delusion and disengagement is banished by His invitation to “Come up here” (Revelation 4:1). Your fear and loneliness are dispelled by His tender mercy and love (Isaiah 49:14-16; John 10:10-11; 15:9; 16:27).

The Father is pleased–genuinely, truly, unabashedly happy–to know us. He delights in our fellowship. Often, we don’t “feel” as though He would love us and want us, and we can list the many reasons He wouldn’t and shouldn’t. But we submit to the truth that He does, and Jesus the Son came to prove it to us and to win our hearts.

 

 

maria, did you know….

I asked the Father this morning what I should pray about, and I instantly sensed “Pray for Maria.” That’s all; no other information.

Really? I thought. There must be millions of Marias in the world. I guess I will pray for them all!

Dutifully, somewhat sheepishly, I lifted up my voice for all women named Maria, and suddenly my thoughts jumped to the systemic oppression and degradation and exploitation of women and girls worldwide. I also began to picture the staggering number of single mothers working so hard for their children and extended families. Then, it occured to me that I should find out the meaning of the name, and the first results I came across online informed me that “Maria” can mean “sea of sorrow” or “sea of bitterness.”

Now I understood. There are so many ladies around the world who are in anguish, praying and weeping bitterly like Hannah (1 Samuel 1:10) from the pain you carry; the grieving is intense, often because of the injustice you have had to face, but also because you so deeply carry the kind heart of the Father, and like Jesus are touched by the infirmities of those you love, and the comfort and tenderness of the Holy Spirit burns within you as you long to comfort others who are afflicted.

So I pray for you today; you who are “Maria”; you who are heavy-laden and feel yourself flailing in a wretched sea of darkness. The evil one and his wickedness assault you, but look up and see that the Warrior-Bridegroom King of the Universe is enthralled by your beauty! (Psalm 45:11.) I declare the goodness and kindness of ADONAI to be poured out on you, and in the safety of the Rock of His Name, you will find Him to be your defense and your strong tower of assurance.

I speak the mercy of God over your life and over the innocent lives for whom you stand guard. ADONAI proclaims His blessing to you: abundance of mercy and generosity; release of His authority in your boldness; and the glory of loveliness enfolded within the ferocity of your compassion.

My sisters, I am awed by your strength to withstand the sorrow and bitterness wrought upon you. Continue in your bravery. You may not feel brave, but believe this: You are beautiful warriors; you are Deborah and you fearlessly strike blows for justice (Judges 4-5). You are the graciousness of the Almighty, and your love and worship have become sharp arrows in the hand of the King that will pierce the heart of darkness and bring light into waste places.

Never, never, never forget your value.

 

refiner’s fire and falling sparrows

All these things Jesus said to the crowds in parables; indeed, he said nothing to them without a parable. This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet:
“I will open my mouth in parables;
I will utter what has been hidden since the foundation of the world.”
(Matthew 13:34-35)

I will turn my ear to a proverb.
I will utter my riddle on the harp….
(Psalm 49:4)

Everyone loves stories.

Our heavenly Father has put illustrations–parables, really–throughout all creation to demonstrate eternal realities. These are not examples put here “just for fun” so that the Christian can engage in a clever intellectual exercise, a way to enjoy “spiritual symbolism” that doesn’t connect with any real-world application; intriguing, but essentially useless for true change or growth. He has placed parables within the fabric of physical existence that teach us truths about divine realities that sustain us in the “nitty-gritty” and mundane aspects of life.

So, we find that a sparrow does not fall to the ground without the notice of our tender Father (Matthew 10:29-31). And does He not much more care for us? The crushing pressures and needs of life, that seem so threatening, are simply opportunities for Jesus to prove His faithfulness to us again and again. We can trust Him completely. Birds do it.

We learn that our God is a “refiner’s fire” (Malachi 3:2-3). This is encouraging (and maybe a little scary), because we realize that precious stones become ever more priceless as impurities are removed through fire. A shimmering glaze on pottery becomes hard and permanent, unable to be removed, after it goes through the burning heat of an oven. So our fiery trials in life build in us character and beauty and enable us to  give pure offerings of worship to our King.

Jesus continually taught in parables to explain (and sometimes conceal) deep spiritual truths. Just as the parables carry an inherent power to transfix our attention, leading us into reflection, and hopefully a new mindset, guiding us into transformation; so do the “parables” inherent in physical creation guide us to sudden epiphanies of comprehension, inviting us–compelling us–to awe and worship, which leads to transformation and genuine love-response to the One who first loved us. This is obedience to the first and greatest commandment:

You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. Deuteronomy 6:5.

So, we find lessons from the glazing of pottery, or the carefree soaring of birds, or the joy of food well-prepared, or the mysterious intensity of a quasar, or the soothing warmth of the afternoon sunshine, or the gentle touch of a loved one, or the innocent happy gurgling of an infant. These are organic expressions of our material world, which were created and pronounced “good” by our good Creator; but he is more than simply a Being greater than the cosmos who set everything spinning into existence. The stories woven into creation point to deeper realities rooted in the  character and nature of our loving Father. He enjoys our enjoyment of discovery. He knows it is fun for us, and when we search out and uncover these truths for ourselves it “locks” them into our understanding as a mere bullet-point outline never could.

We are excited by stories; we relate and respond to stories; we are changed by stories. Our Lord made life a story, so we could relish living it and contributing to the mystery. We are explorers in an adventure movie; we are pilgrims in a fairy tale; we are cherished and pursued for divine romance. And all this is far grander and more wonderful than anything Hollywood could ever dream up.

valentines and ashes

I am not Catholic, but I do realize that today is the celebration of both Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day. It seems there would not be two days more diametrically opposed. Do we focus on flowers and romance, or ashes and sorrow? Do we repent, prostrate in the dirt, or leap joyfully in shameless celebration of love?

Or perhaps we really do not fully understand the mystery of this question: Is there a convergence of the two, a romance inculcated by the act of prostrating in ash?

Are we able to focus on the romance of surrender, of humility, of recognizing we are butheart tree dust? It is a beautiful thing to be prostrate before the King, who desires our beauty, who gives “beauty for ashes.” So ashes can be romantic; our humanity, while humble and broken, is lovely.

To recognize that we are but dust, deserving of nothing, is a romantic and beautiful posture.
For, “…on this one will I look, one humble and of a contrite spirit, who trembles at My word” (Isaiah 66:2). We tremble with the understanding of His greatness and our unworthiness, yes; He is infinite and immense, and we are finite and puny, yes; so we tremble and fear before the Eternal and Holy, the Fire whom we cannot begin to comprehend; yet we also tremble with lover’s passion, engulfed by the searing flame of our Lover who draws us irresistibly into intimacy and incandescent communion.

Capture our hearts, Lover of our souls. “Set me like a seal over your heart, like a seal on your arm. For love is as strong as death….” (Song of Songs 8:6). There is a passionate jealousy and beauty resplendent in our ashes. From them, Yeshua will receive glory; our bodies—which came from dust and will return to dust—He has formed to be a container for His presence, a sacred temple on this earth, the pinnacle of creation.

So we, your people throughout history, are created into beautiful majesty from the ashes of our failure, as we reach upward in hope and are enlivened and recreated by your kiss, the breath of life. As we approach you, marked with humility, you make us glorious in your palace.

he gives us pure oil

This evening begins the celebration of Hanukkah with the lighting of the first of eight candles. The miracle that occurred over 2200 years ago is a picture of the light that has illuminated our hearts—a light of purity and a light of the miraculous.

We pray as Paul did in Ephesians 1:18; that the eyes of our hearts would be enlightened—“filled with light”—that we would know the hope of His calling and His glorious inheritance in us, and that we would understand the greatness of His power to us who believe. This power is like the mighty strength He exercised when He raised Jesus from the dead and seated Him at the right hand of the Father (Ephesians 1:19-20).

This is a work of grace in our hearts and our lives. It is our Lord’s mighty power at work in us. We don’t earn it; we don’t cause it to come to us through effort. We posture ourselves humbly; yielding, trusting, believing that He is true and faithful, and that His Word is true. He will fulfill His purposes and promises in our lives. He is the Alpha and Omega—the beginning and end, the initiator and perfecter of our faith (Revelation 1:8; 22:13; Isaiah 44:6; Hebrews 12:2).

He faithfully began a good work in us, and He will be faithful to complete it until the day of Christ Jesus (Philippians 1:6). This work unites us with our Bridegroom, creating worship and faithfulness within our hearts, that we would be the “five wise virgins” with our lamps full of oil (Matthew 25:1-13), purified by the Holy Spirit, watching with the eyes of our hearts wide open and full of light.

The darkness of our present age is no match for the burning devotion—fueled by pure oil—that the Lord Himself is producing in His family.  Just as the Maccabees refused idol worship and refused to be intimidated by the enemies of God, so we too enter the temple of the Lord to worship, to set aright those things that have been displaced, and to receive a miracle of power and devotion placed within our hearts by the One who performs miracles.

We need the oil of the Holy Spirit within us to keep our light burning in the night season until the return of our Bridegroom. His truth shines more purely and brightly within our hearts, and the light we release to others—bringing the light of hope to their darkness—will continue to grow in authority and power as we have yielded and find ourselves united in one spirit with the Lord.

This will display the true light that lights every man (John 1:9) and will release the power of the Holy One to restore us, our families, and our lands.

 

genuine value

Everybody wants to be somebody.

We desire significance. We want to be recognized; we want to be known; we want to be loved. We want to be important. This cry for value and dignity bubbles from caverns deep in every human heart. If we are truly to be whole people, we must understand our honest need.

We are not random collections of organic molecules that happened to develop consciousness; so our desire for esteem is part of our very nature, and it is good. But our consumption-obsessed society tells us we aren’t quite good enough. Make yourself better-looking, get more money, acquire more stuff; then you’ll be fulfilled and achieve real success. We desire outward signs to display our preeminence.

Unfortunately, when we seek at any cost to be important in the eyes of others, it is easy to lose sight of the beauty to be found in another person. We are too busy accomplishing great and mighty deeds. The world’s attitude is summed up in the famous line from Gilbert & Sullivan: “When everyone is somebody, then no one’s anybody” (The Gondoliers).

But our Father turns that on its head, because in His great heart, everyone is somebody, and no one’s nobody!

As I have written elsewhere, when we lose ourselves in Him and His desire and purpose, we become more ourselves than we ever can apart from His will. But when we let rightful desires within us run wild and unchecked, they turn into cravings; and cravings, unchallenged, turn into addictions.

My craving for significance is calmed by realizing that it can never be fulfilled by another human, and it cannot be pacified even if I “improve myself.” My heart is at peace when I realize the truth that Yeshua, the Creator and King of the universe, “greatly desires my beauty” (Psalm 45:11). He is the one who created me, created you, created everyone who lives, and He has placed within each of us a tiny expression of His glory.

Somehow, although none of us can really understand it, the eternal tabernacles in the temporal.

So, why do I crave recognition from any person? If I spend my time and energy trying to receive honor from people instead of God alone, it short-circuits my faith and my ability to live truly as I was meant to.

During one of His encounters with leaders in Jerusalem, Jesus issued this stinging rebuke:

I do not accept glory from men, but I know you, that you do not have the love of God in yourselves….How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and you do not seek the glory that comes from God alone? (John 5:41-42, 44 TLV).

If I scurry about seeking approval from others, I miss intimacy with the one true Source of life who alone can validate my existence. Connected with Him, I have the courage to live selflessly, full of love for others, desiring their good and being willing to pour out my life for them, as Yeshua poured out His life for me.

I will also find myself free to seek first His kingdom and His righteousness.

thirty-four years of beauty

(This is adapted from a post I wrote a few years ago for my precious wife on our anniversary)

I write with grateful joy today, because it is my wedding anniversary. Thirty-four years ago this day, a wonderful, loving, gentle, luminous, alluring young woman and I exchanged vows before God and family and friends, and our pastor announced we were married.Marriage is exciting and infuriating and joyous and frightening and challenging and wondrous and weird and astonishing. It is a great adventure; it is a comforting and joyous sharing of life; it is two unique individuals daily learning to become—in profoundly mysterious union—“one flesh.”  Marriage is an earthly picture of the love Christ shares with his Church.

I have learned how to be more like Jesus, and how to truly be a man, by sharing this journey with the finest woman I have ever known.

The last chapter of the biblical book of Proverbs contains this question: “A capable, intelligent and virtuous woman, who is he who can find her?”

I can answer. I found Kathi.

My feelings for her today are elegantly expressed in the lyrics to a beautiful song performed by Steven Curtis Chapman titled “We Will Dance”:

I’ve watched the sunrise in your eyes
And I’ve seen the tears fall like the rain
You’ve seen me fight so brave and strong
You’ve held my hand when I’m afraid

We’ve watched the seasons come and go
We’ll see them come and go again
But in winter’s chill, or summer’s breeze
One thing will not be changin’

We will dance
When the sun is shining; in the pouring rain
We’ll spin and we’ll sway
And we will dance
When the gentle breeze becomes a hurricane
The music will play
And I’ll take your hand and hold you close to me
And we will dance

Sometimes it’s hard to hold you tight
Sometimes we feel so far apart
Sometimes we dance as one
And feel the beating of each other’s heart

Some days the dance is slow and sweet
Some days we’re bouncing off the walls
But no matter how this world may turn
Our love will keep us from falling

And we will dance
When the sun is shining; in the pouring rain
We’ll spin and we’ll sway
And we will dance
When the gentle breeze becomes a hurricane
The music will play
And I’ll take your hand and hold you close to me
And we will dance

The music will play
And I’ll hold you close and I won’t let go
Even when our steps grow weak and slow
Still I’ll take your hand and hold you close to me
And we will dance

Thank you, my beloved, for all the years of dancing.

Dancing