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.

don’t waste your sorrows

This morning my wife Kathi and I participated in a global online gathering of Christian believers from many nations, representing multiple people groups of the world, praying, repenting, and calling out, like the prophet Daniel, for the Lord to forgive our sins and the sins of our respective nations, and renewing our commitment to humbly seek him and to love our neighbors.

Currently, as in the days of Daniel, the people of God are in a time of unprecedented opportunity.

I know the news media tell us that we are in a catastrophe and a crisis and declare that the world is in turmoil and shutdown. Prognosticators and pundits relentlessly trumpet the chaos and destruction threatening our way of life; even our very survival as a species.

All this is true—sort of. But as is always the case when we look deeper into “reality” and peer below the surface of the physically evident, things are not what they seem.

It’s true we are in shutdown everywhere. Untold numbers of people have been consigned to seclusion in their homes. The flowing movement of modern society as we have known it has been halted with sudden and brutal ferocity, creating fear—even panic—in millions of people. We are not able to gather in public squares and marketplaces the way we have been accustomed. The halls of worship built for our rampant consumerism—malls and stores and restaurants and bars—have been closed.

And the halls of worship for religion have been closed as well, although there have been some who choose to defy any imposed restrictions.

This is a time of grief for so many thousands who have fallen ill or have had loved ones become sick and die. Our hearts are broken for such cruel and incomprehensible loss. For such tragedies there are no pat answers; frankly, there are no answers at all save the Bible’s admonition to suffer and weep with them (Jeremiah 8:21, 9:1, 14:17; Romans 12:15; John 11:32-36).

But as we grieve, we must also quiet the inner clamor of our thoughts and ask questions. God invites us to time and again in Scripture to become aware of his greater reality, and if we will perceive it, we will hear the faint rumblings that he is doing something dreadful and wonderful. Our Father, to whom the whole universe belongs, has not turned from us or allowed his hand to be shortened. This plague has not caught him off-guard. He always takes what is meant for evil and uses it for good, if we will humble ourselves. God is not the author of evil, but he does discipline us and he has brought us to this time of worldwide silence unlike anything any of us now alive have known.

And yet…

Also unlike any time in human history, we have technology to go past forced seclusion and interact with each other in meaningful ways. The Lord is changing our expressions of worship and fellowship “as usual” and is causing us deep heart-searching. Have we obeyed the first and greatest commandment and sought after him and loved him beyond everything else? Is his presence our greatest treasure and magnificent reward? Will we really love our neighbors as we love ourselves? Do we really want his kingdom, or are we still content to promote our own little fiefdoms?

This global pandemic has forced us to face these questions head-on. It is forcing us, especially those of us who live in affluence, to face the very real truth that we are not as strong as we think we are. In this time that appears so dark, we can succumb to despair, or we can humble ourselves and draw closer together, heart-to-heart, and communicate with each other through the means available to us. We can recognize more fully that we are truly one body under one almighty and gracious Head.

Our God declares those things which aren’t as though they are, because those things he declares as are are the things he does and plans to do, and so they actually are already accomplished. (Confusing, I know.) He loves to turn our presumptions and our accomplishments upside-down as he displays his glory through individuals and events we would never choose or imagine. 

When we look below the surface of our physical world, we discover paradox. Scientists don’t know why the world even exists or how the fabric of space-time works at the sub-atomic level; we try to get a fix on “dark” matter and energy; we don’t fully understand what time really is (see here and here). It’s the same in the realm of the spirit as we follow Jesus. Lose your life to save it. Give everything away to become rich. Be great by becoming everyone’s servant. (I won’t even begin to discuss the contrast between God’s sovereignty and man’s freedom of choice.) We are now directly inside another paradox, because even as people around the planet go into seclusion through “social distancing,” all humanity together is sharing this same emergency at the same time, in essentially the same way. This is not just happening “somewhere else” and oh isn’t it tragic; it is happening here as well as out there. It isn’t only happening to other people; it is impacting all our families and friends. It isn’t the sort of shared experience we would ever choose, but we’re together in this, and if we will respond the way our Lord would have us respond, then even as we are “distancing” socially, we are drawing together in greater intimacy.

It is time to press in more closely to our Lord who knows all our ways, who loves us and is drawing us to himself that our faith may be purified and we might come closer to fulfilling the desire of Yeshua that he expressed in his John 17 prayer. May we share the resources and hope we have been given as the body of Christ with those who desperately need the bread and water of Life.

where are your accusers?

It is no secret that western society is seething with a culture of outrage; and part-and-parcel with outrage comes accusation. Every day we hear or read about another person or group incensed over some injustice, screaming and frothing and gnashing teeth as they accuse others of a litany of abominations.

Now, nobody likes to be accused of anything, whether it is true or not. Accusation is a battering ram of blame and incrimination, stopping our breath and rendering our insides a hot, churning stew of fear and defensiveness. When confronted with evidence of our misdeed(s), we may feel like a kid who wets the bed and has their sheets hung out our bedroom windows to dry, our shame in plain view of all our friends.

And if we are falsely accused, it is worse. We are aware of our failures, both seen and unseen; but to be accused of something we didn’t do causes us to bristle with appalled anger against the unjust charge leveled at us. False accusations can throw us into defensiveness and anger, and despite our protests, we realize that others probably find our claims of innocence to be further evidence of real guilt.

Accusation has the power to render us depressed, even despairing. If we are innocent, the blast of injustice against us is nauseating. If we are guilty, we are forced to face our weakness and wickedness. But rather than respond with humility and sorrow, human nature wants to excuse–or at least justify–our behavior.

Then ADONAI Elohim called to the man and He said to him “Where are you?”

Then he said, “Your sound–I heard it in the garden and I was afraid. Because I am naked, I hid myself.” Then He said, “Who told you that you are naked? Have you eaten from the Tree from which I commanded you not to eat?” Then the man said, “The woman whom You gave to be with me–she gave me of the Tree, and I ate.”

ADONAI Elohim said to the woman, “What did you do?”

The woman said, “The serpent deceived me and I ate.” (Genesis 3:9-13, TLV)

It is common to hear people mention (disparagingly) how “Eve ate the fruit”; but at least she put the blame on the serpent, unlike Adam who had the ridiculous arrogance to blame God Himself! This is the kind of panic that occurs when we sin and are caught. Ringing throughout our being is the cry But you just don’t understand what I’ve been through or I don’t know what happened to me. And right on the heels of that excuse is It’s not really my fault!

So often, we do not understand our own actions, and we try to console ourselves that we should receive, if not pardon, at least a level of kind understanding. But unfortunately, accusation generally carries a dose of contempt. We perceive the thoughts of others: How could someone do such a thing? Condemnation builds, until every veneer of self-respect and self-protection is stripped in the flood of remorse, regret, and shame. Now I’ve been found out! Most of us will do anything to “cover our tracks” to keep this from happening; or at least, we begin to set up excuses to minimize the damage to our ego.

So we have an innate, knee-jerk reaction to confrontation. We hate to be the recipient of another person telling us we have done wrong. We want to be the “good guys,” the people who have it together in their lives and who live by some sort of moral code–whatever it might be. But since that breakdown in Eden, we have all been engaged in the struggle to write our own laws and set our own standards for a life well-lived. We seek to rule our kingdom, even if it is a kingdom of one. The currency in this realm is I’m not really that bad; I’m not like those people!

Self-justification comes easy when I console myself by looking at the foul misdeeds of those outside my camp. It’s easy to preen and pat myself on the back with the congratulatory phrase At least I’ve never done _________ (fill in the blank). I run into a genuine problem, though, when I revisit the scene of Adam and Eve before the Almighty in the garden. God asks the first couple a legitimate question, familiar to anyone who has been a parent: Did you do what I told you not to do?”

How do you answer that with anything but the truth? Standing before the Creator–who knows everything in entirety, who knows every person intimately–none of us find stability standing on the platforms of rationalization we have constructed. Our foundations are rotting timbers and crumbling concrete. Our excuses, mist in sunlight, whisk away from the breath of His mouth. Truly, before His eyes of fire, all garments are incinerated.

And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are naked and open to the eyes of Him to whom we must give account (Hebrews 4:13).

The LORD God does not judge unrighteously or from self-interest or self-protection. He will not accept even our best excuses, clever though we may think they are. His holy standards and desires for all His creation are pure and good and noble, and we have fallen short. We have all eaten that which He told us not to eat. And so, we are without excuse.

Mea culpa. Guilty as charged. I really don’t need anyone to accuse me, because my actions and my conscience already do a fine job. Adding to the mix, I have an enemy that also relentlessly seeks every opportunity to remind God and man how truly dreadful I am.

But into my mess, and into yours, steps the Son of God. He became one of us. He was–and is–fully human, while still fully God. I don’t understand it and neither do you, but that doesn’t make it untrue. Because Jesus bore our sin and took our deserved punishment upon Himself, we are freed from the stupidity of manufacturing excuses or trying to shift blame.

Our Messiah, the King of the universe, is the only person worthy to accuse and condemn. Yet, He doesn’t. Scripture teaches us that there is “no condemnation” for anyone who trusts in Him for salvation. Like the unnamed adulteress who stood torn and shamed before Jesus (John 8), we tremble with fear at the questions we are sure He will ask: “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten that which I commanded you not to eat?”

 And wonder of wonders, instead our Lord asks, “Where are your accusers?” And we look around and realize that there are none. At the foot of the cross, anger and outrage are subsumed in the violent beauty of sacrificial love and outrageous forgiveness. At the foot of the cross, all power of sin and accusation vanishes.

And we hear Him say, “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.”

And because of grace, that is possible.

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.

 

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.

 

God’s name is not harvey

A few days ago I read a grimly humorous story about a family who posted a message on social media, “Good news! We are OK,” to which a friend wearily replied “I’m sorry, remind me: which disaster are you in?”

The level of destruction due to natural—and man-made—catastrophes we have recently been witnessing is heartbreaking. We all want to do everything we can to help and to ease people’s suffering.

Many Christians are deeply troubled and fearful in the midst of such chaos, and unfortunately, we have seen much conflict and animosity occurring as people entrench themselves into opposing viewpoints, vehemently arguing their case as to the cause behind all the trouble. Some claim the disasters are judgments from God; others react against this, questioning why God would judge one place and not another; and still others try to walk a middle road, claiming that God is merciful, but there are times He does need to judge and we can’t always understand His ways.

These pronouncements and opinions miss the point.

In Luke 13, we read that Jesus was told about a group of Galileans who had been cruelly killed by Pilate. He gave a response that, at first glance, almost seems evasive, but it actually gives us an enlightened perspective:

And Jesus answered and said to them, “Do you suppose that these Galileans were worse sinners than all other Galileans, because they suffered such things?  I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them, do you think that they were worse sinners than all other men who dwelt in Jerusalem?  I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish.” (Luke 13:2-5)

The Lord had just been discussing the importance of discerning the signs of the times when someone piped up with the account of the slaughtered Galileans, probably with the intent of receiving a response about judgment and retribution. But Jesus clearly pointed out that these events were not direct examples of heaven’s judgment upon wicked people. As He often did, He changed the focus of the question back upon an individual’s responsibility to live in right relationship with God.

So, as we ponder and pray our way through the turmoil and chaos, and wade through all the declarations of doom from self-proclaimed prophets—and the resulting hurt and angry protestations from individuals offended by what they perceive as heartlessness—there are a number of factors to consider.

We understand that God is sovereign; everything that exists belongs to Him. He reserves to Himself the ultimate authority to judge every individual, every people group, every nation. There is a coming Day when the present age will be consummated, and the secrets of every heart will be revealed. In that Day, we will all stand naked before the holy One who sits upon the glorious throne, judging with perfect justice.

It is important to recognize that God has a controversy against every nation (Jer. 25:31, Hosea 4:1), so we are to seek Him for wisdom and guidance as to how we should pray, and not automatically declare “This particular occurrence is a judgment of God upon this particular people at this particular time.” The great truth, and great hope for us, is that God desires all men to be saved. His heart is always reaching for mankind with good-will and kindness. Jesus did not come to condemn the world, but to save it. He said if we believe in the Son we are not judged; if we do not believe, we are judged already (John 3:16-19); and it is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God if we refuse His grace (Hebrews 10:31). But for us who have been justified, the hands of God are a refuge of strength and comfort and mercy, for we have been tenderly engraved upon them (Isaiah 49:16; John 20:24-29).

We also recognize that at this present time, Scripture teaches that all creation groans and convulses as a woman laboring in childbirth, desperate for the full manifestations of the sons of God (Romans 8:22). It is irresponsible and naïve for us to ignore our own complicity in the convulsions of creation due to sin. Our planet groans and aches with longing for us to fully take our place in righteous stewardship, properly managing our Lord’s good gifts, because then creation itself will be delivered from its bondage to corruption into the glorious liberty that awaits us (Romans 8:21).

So, when we see tragedy strike, it is helpful and right that we humble ourselves and confess our sins—not in morbid introspection, but in humility like Daniel, identifying ourselves with the failings of our people and our nation. As we repent, we also respond with gratitude and worship for God’s great kindness and goodness. We have freely received, so we freely release blessing and life over our nation, proclaiming mercy and healing into every heart and every situation. As children of the great King, ambassadors of His grace, it is our mandate to bless and not curse. We are to be blameless and pure so that we shine as lights in the midst of a warped and perverse generation (Ph. 2:15).

So, do not feel as though you must take sides about “why” tragedies occur. Frankly, there are many “whys” we all must face that do not have completely satisfying answers. But it is vital that we keep as our foundation the clear teaching of Scripture that our Lord is good, and He expresses that goodness to all He has made! At the birth of our Savior, the sky exploded with brilliance as angelic hosts proclaimed the kind intentions of our eternal Creator: “…peace on earth, goodwill toward men….”

We honor our Father when we trust Him. We do not bury our heads in the sand and refuse to face reality; rather, we courageously and boldly live lives of hope and trust in the face of dark trouble and wickedness, knowing that the God of all the earth will do justly.

We are assured that the time is coming when He will wipe every tear from our eyes, and His dwelling will be with us eternally. There will be no sorrow, or sickness, or fear, or pain.

All will be as our God desires. Behold, He makes all things new.

canticle in the darkness

Here is a promise and a comfort most beautiful, spoken to us by our glorious and gracious Father:

The kind of person on whom I look with favor
is one with a poor and humble spirit,
who trembles at my word. (Isaiah 66:2)

Many individuals in the body of Christ have lived long in such a posture; remaining humble, childlike, trusting and trembling before the power of our eternal God and the mysteries of his Word. But after long seasons of barrenness, stumbling on dusty roads through colorless and arid wastelands, their throats have become parched with crying and thirst, and their souls have paled from inability to change their circumstances; their lives becoming a vapor of insignificance.

In this dry and weary land dwell foul and slithering spirits, who hiss with mocking arrogance. “Let the LORD be glorified, that we may see your joy…” (Isaiah 66:5). And so you tremble more violently; not with fear of the Lord, but with cringing fear and despair, because it seems that Jesus is not glorified through your life. You live with prayers unanswered, promises unfulfilled, sins unvanquished, relationships unrestored. Your life seems engraved with failure and your destiny is written by your inability to press forward into the land of promise.

You find yourself agreeing with the voice of the accuser, because his words are based on “reality.” But they are not based on truth.

You are not sculpted in failure, cast as a monument to “what might have been,” but in fact, you have been carved onto the very hands of the triune God (Isaiah 49:16; John 20:26-29) and burned into the affections of His heart (Song 8:6-7).

Your life and your heart of humility and trust–though weak and faltering–is more pleasing to God than you can possibly imagine!

For YHVH takes pleasure in His people;
He will beautify the afflicted ones with salvation.
He heals the brokenhearted,
And binds up their wounds.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
A broken and contrite heart, O God,
Thou wilt not despise.
Great is our Lord, and abundant in strength;
His understanding is infinite.
(He) favors those who fear Him,
Those who wait for His lovingkindness.
(Psalm 149:14; 147:3,5,11; 51:17).

So we wait—trusting, trembling with hope—for His lovingkindness. Faith is turning our gaze to behold Jesus, and to follow Him where He goes. It is to keep our focus fixed on Him, not worrying what others have (or have not) done or accomplished; not concerning ourselves with what levels of glory we “should have” reached; neither ashamed for things we have done that we shouldn’t have, nor regretting things we have not done that we should.

But you may say, “I have failed too much. I have squandered my inheritance. I have been covered so long in the cloak of despair that I reek of decay.”

In your desperation, hear His response:

You, who sits mourning in the very heart of Zion—though you don’t even believe you are there—I come to comfort you. I gently smooth the ashes of charred dreams from your hair; anoint your head with fragrant oil to cleanse the stench of hopelessness and place on your brow a beautiful garland, woven from my vibrant, shimmering pleasure. I strip from you the grave clothes of shattered hope and wrap you in a mantle of praise and glory, a festive robe suitable for celebration, that as I rejoice over you, you would no longer be exhausted by despair. I will rebuild the broken places in your life; I will restore life to the years that you think you have wasted, and cause you to flourish before me as a towering oak, my righteousness your life-flow. (based on Isaiah 61:3-4).

So now, take God at His Word, believing that He has deposited within you His imperishable, incorruptible seed. You are deemed priceless, purchased with the life of Christ.

…you were not redeemed with corruptible things, like silver or gold, from your aimless conduct received by tradition from your fathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot. He indeed was foreordained before the foundation of the world, but was manifest in these last times for you. (1 Peter 1:18-20).

When the enemy mocks, his forked tongue spitting lies: “Let God be glorified, so we can see you rejoice; oh wait, He isn’t glorified in you, is He? You can’t rejoice, can you?”
warriorBride
Here is your response, a full-throated, delirious exultation of victory as part of Jesus’ warrior-bride:

I am so joyful in ADONAI!
M
y soul rejoices in my God,  
for He has clothed me with garments of salvation,
He has wrapped me with a robe of righteousness and triumph…
like a bride adorned with her jewels. (Isaiah 61:10).

Selah.

strange fire

Fire was important to Israel’s worship, both in the Tabernacle and the Temple, as it was to be kept burning continually on the altars of incense and of the burnt offering. In both the Tabernacle in the wilderness, and the Temple in Jerusalem, fire on the altar was set ablaze by God himself (Leviticus 9:24; 2 Chronicles 7:1-3). This fire was special; this fire was sacred; and it was to be tended continually.

But in the wilderness, at the very institution of the priesthood, came tragedy born of human foolishness:

Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it, put incense on it, and offered profane fire before the LORD, which He had not commanded them. So fire went out from the LORD and devoured them, and they died before the LORD. And Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the LORD spoke, saying:
‘By those who come near Me
I must be regarded as holy;
And before all the people
I must be glorified.'” (Leviticus 10:1-3).

Our great God is love and mercy and goodness; he is filled with lovingkindness, and he pardons sin and iniquity. But we must never forget that he is holy and pure, and evil cannot dwell with him (Habakkuk 1:13; Psalm 5:4-5).

The body of Christ has entered a season of increased consecration, where the Holy Spirit is causing all of his people to live a greater maturity in the faith. His call has always been that we would walk in the truth he has shown us, and believe the written Word and the promises he has quickened to our hearts. As the coming of our Lord draws nearer, and this present age nears its completion, it is vital that we know him and trust him, finding our life and strength in him.

There are many powerful promises God has revealed to us, and encounters with his presence to comfort and encourage us, reminding us of his power and his commitment to our welfare. But when we find ourselves consumed with vain imaginations such as regrets from the past (I wrestle with this) or fear of the future or insecurity about the Lord’s love for us, are we not coming before him with “profane fire”? When our identity is determined by our accomplishments or the fleeting approval of men, and we find ourselves consumed with fleshly desires and grasping after security, isn’t this placing before the Almighty an offering that he has not commanded?

And when we come before him, seeking to pray the right way, or repent correctly, or worship with the right forms and words; when we demand that he answer our questions so we can understand and believe; when we think we can somehow find favor in his sight through our devotion or our religious activities; are we then not just as guilty as the sons of Aaron, kindling strange fire on the altars of our hearts?

Our Father knows us intimately, and he wants us to bring him our cares, our fears, our doubts, our anger. We cry out to him from our brokenness, and in mercy he heals us. We pour out our anguish because we only know in part, and see in part, and there is so much we just don’t understand.

There is a place we are to bring all our wickedness, our unbelief, our fear, our foolishness, our pain, and our emptiness. It is the cross of Jesus. We lay it all down; and then, when our backs are unburdened of our load of care, our shoulders untethered from the yoke of slavery, and our hands emptied of our own accomplishments, we lay ourselves prostrate before him, knowing that he has taken upon himself every agony, every filthy action, every injustice from every instant of human history–past, present, and future. Then we arise, having boldly entered the Holy of Holies, the very presence of our eternal God, knowing that our hearts have been made clean and our bodies have been washed with pure water. The flame that we then find kindled within is like that inferno that roared from heaven upon the wilderness altar; the glory that flattened Solomon and all Israel at the Temple dedication; the wildfire that exploded on Mount Carmel, silencing the shrieking of Baal worship; the blazing eyes of Jesus that caused John the beloved to collapse as though dead.

We glorify him and he burns within us as he reveals his passionate love, the flaming heart of holy mercy that gives light to our darkness and warmth in our coldness.

fire-heart

the Nikean creed

One morning, I was minding my own business, getting ready for work, when the Holy Spirit spoke to my heart so clearly, it was almost as if I heard an audible voice.

“Jeffrey, you are not the savior of the world. I am.”

I know what you are thinking. Duh—right? But it stopped me dead in my tracks.

I have written about my youthful desire to “burn out for God.” Heroes of the faith loomed large in my mind, and I pictured myself praying and eventually becoming a man who would live every aspect of his life in sacrificial devotion, twenty-nine hours a day; I would become a heroic, selfless, humble soldier for Christ who would be willing to take up my cross, endure any hardship and face any danger with martyr’s courage. I would live inflamed with zeal to be a demon-destroying, injustice-shredding, glory-spreading, Word-wielding  warrior for Christ.

Also, of course, I was also completely responsible for everything that happened in my marriage and family. Surely, as head of the household, the well-being of my wife and children depended on me.

Not. Even. Close.

I believe that everyone’s life affects others, especially if we are “of the household of faith” (Galatians 6:10), because we are part of one Body, and therefore joined together under one Head (Ephesians 1:22, Colossians 1:18). But I notice something important in those Scripture passages: there is one Head, one Savior, and it isn’t me!

Unfortunately, many of us still are obsessively performance-oriented. It seems instead of following Jesus, we follow hard after the philosophy of a famous sportswear manufacturer:

JUST DO IT!

God saved you, after all; don’t you now owe him the courtesy of trying, with all your strength, to love him with all your heart and behave as he would expect you to? Aren’t we responsible to fix everything in our lives and the world around us?

Our weird works-based theology springs from the fallacy that knowing good and evil makes us like God. It doesn’t. God created us in his image, but we have all sinned, and spun off onto our own roads leading into the dark swamp of self-worship.We desperately need him to grab us by the shoulders, steady us, and set us on the path that leads to life. If we humble ourselves before Jesus, he creates something new out of our lives, declaring that we all have a great and glorious destiny and wonderful exploits to perform on this earth. But these spring from the desire and power of our King.

For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:8-10).

Get it? You are saved by faith; but God gives it to you. You are a marvelous new creation; but God did the creating without your help. You have incredible, world-changing works to do, but they were all planned out for you a long, long time ago.

Guess what? It’s not about you. It’s not about me, either.

We can try—God knows some of us try—but we can’t make ourselves holy, or zealous, or courageous, or loving, or merciful. We are absolutely dependent on the mercy and power of our Lord, not anything we can do. God desires and requires us to have hearts of grace-filled love, humbled by his mercy. So, in kindness, he gives them to us. He loves it when we trust him and place all our hope in what he accomplished for us through Jesus.

Our response of devotion springs from hearts filled with the powerful and merciful love of God. We can never earn that love, or pay him back for the sacrifice he made for us. He truly deserves that we would offer him our lives; so by HIS grace, we are able to respond to his gracious invitation with amazed gratitude. This is really good news for those of us who labor under a self-imposed yoke of sacrificial religious duty. Take a moment to read and ponder what Jesus said:

“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” (Matthew 11:28-30, The Message).

So, let’s take a deep breath, cease striving, and know that he is God!

Now, where did I put my copy of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs…….?