When your heart grows faint


“These are the words of him who is holy and true,” Jesus’ message to the church at Philadelphia begins (Rev 3:7). The words that follow offer reassurance for the moments we realize even more acutely than usual that we are not in control.

“These are the words of him who is holy and true, who holds the key of David. What he opens, no one can shut, and what he shuts, no one can open.”

As much as I love that following promise that there is Someone who holds the key to everything and is not afraid to use it, I find myself being drawn back again and again to those first few foundational words, because what comfort is it to know that someone holds the key unless we also know that that someone is good?

“These are the words of him who is holy and true.”

As Old Testament scholar Iain Provan says,

“What is this holiness? Quite simply, it is goodness by another name” (Provan, Seriously Dangerous Religion, p. 65).
“In biblical thinking, then, God is good, and he intends good. He is, to quote the Apostle Paul in the New Testament, ‘for us’ (Romans 8:31)—intent on blessing his creation, on loving it faithfully, and on rescuing it where necessary” (Ibid, p. 64).

Holy and true. This combination of words is only used in one other verse in the Bible—three chapters later where the martyrs are crying out for justice, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” (Rev 6:10). Here, those who stared into the hate-filled eyes of death, who felt its claws and its teeth and its breath hot on their necks, now address God from the other side of the grave. In doing so, they testify that this is true: in the presence of the most terrifying injustice, violence, and  violation, when the universe seems out of control and evil seems to have won, Someone—a good Someone—is still on the throne.
The martyrs crying out don’t have the answers to why or when or how. And they don’t ask why these things happened to them. Perhaps in those moments of torture and death they saw the burning hatred of evil and felt its ravenous viciousness too deeply to need to ask that question. The searing pain of flames or blade or slow suffocation left no doubt that evil exists. Instead of dwelling there, they look back to the One who is stronger than evil and ask when he will bring justice and freedom and life. That he will is not a question. It can’t be otherwise, because that sovereign Someone is holy and true.
He is holy—perfectly, brilliantly good. He will, therefore, in the end, put to right everything in this universe that he he loves.
And he is true—he doesn’t mess around with half-truths and promises that turn to mist the moment we put our weight on them. He is solid, authentic, and trustworthy. A Rock we can put our whole weight on.

“Hear my cry, O God; listen to my prayer.
From the ends of the earth I call to you, I call as my heart grows faint;
lead me to the rock that is higher than I.
For you have been my refuge, a strong tower against the foe.
I long to dwell in your tent forever
and take refuge in the shelter of your wings.” (Psalm 61:1-4)

 

A live coal in the sea

dscn6195editYou know how sometimes there’s a theme that comes at you in surround sound? A song in the grocery store, an ad on a bus shelter, the words of a friend—all seem to carry some thread of the same theme that is pressing for your attention. A few weeks ago, what was front and center for me was the difference between how I see sin and how God sees it.
I picked up one book and read Alan Jones’ startling statement:

“I have become even more convinced that the generosity of God—the fact that the Divine loves everyone without exception—is what bothers so many religious people. The moralists among us find such generosity intolerable.” (Exploring Spiritual Direction, ix)

I opened another and read Serena Woods’ story:

“I was the adulterous woman for whom Jesus was standing. He didn’t have to convince other people to forgive me. He had to convince me . . .
Every avenue I once used to get to God was no longer open to me. I was kicked out, dismissed and excommunicated. Every Christian song on the radio, book on the shelf and sermon I could remember never spoke to the sinner. It spoke to the victim. Marketed Christianity, I learned, was about saving Christians. But here was Jesus, standing with his feet next to mine. Immanuel was justifying me.” (Soul Bare, 34)

That Sunday my pastor spoke of the accusation against Christians that “You talk a lot about grace but dig down deep enough and what you’re really excited about is judgment.”
I smiled when he spoke of Jonah sulking about grace at the same time he was preaching it. Too many times my heart, too, has held a greater desire for judgment (“they shouldn’t just get away with that!”) than for forgiveness that names sin and removes it and forgets.
Jesus takes sin seriously. Enough to die for it. Enough to insist that people who come to him leave their life of sin. But he never lets sin get in the way of giving or receiving love.
He takes sin and makes it a place to give and receive love, not a barrier to it.
How did we, who often build walls and burn bridges, get this so wrong?
Jesus eats with sinners. He lets them wash his feet, unworried about the opinions of religious folk. He tells sinners he came for them, not for the ones who seem to have it all together.
Jesus lived in front of our eyes the truth that David saw a thousand years before:

“[God] does not treat us as our sins deserve, or repay us according to our iniquities . . . As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.” (Psalm 103:10,12)

I have appreciated forgiveness; now I am learning to love it. I am becoming freer to trust it, to delight in it, to savor the joy of it for myself and offer it more freely to others.
But I wonder, when forgiveness (for us and for others) is such good news, why does it often take so long before it feels like good news?
Is it pride? Do I want to separate myself from others, to prop up the illusion that I am better—at least able to pay for my own sin if not actually prevent it?
Does fear lie beneath the pride, fear that love is scarce and there isn’t enough to go around? Do I still think I have to earn love and acceptance with my goodness?
I turn back to Psalm 103 and read the verse tucked between the two about forgiveness:

“For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him.” (Psalm 103:11)

This is when forgiveness becomes good news, when my heart finally believes that forgiveness flows from God’s free and limitless love.
As William Langland, author of Piers Plowman, wrote in the fourteenth century, “All the wickedness in the world that man might work or think is no more to the mercy of God than a live coal dropped into the sea.”
Societally sanctioned sins. Sins that put people in jail. My own grasping for control. Each way someone else has hurt me. All are bits of that same burning coal begging to be dropped into the limitless ocean, swallowed up, extinguished, forgotten.
It’s true, friends, and pleading to be savored. Time to dump the judgment and come home free.
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I’ll be taking a course next week, savoring this limitless love and learning how better to accompany others on the journey to trust it. See you back here in two weeks!

How ungratitude can heal your heart

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“For what moment today am I most grateful?” and “For what moment today am I least grateful?” Most nights lately I’ve been asking these two questions from the Linn’s marvelous little book, Sleeping with Bread. Practicing gratitude isn’t new to me. Practicing ungratitude is. I’ve been startled to discover that the second question is drawing me even more deeply into God’s love than the first.
The first time I asked myself that second question I cried. I didn’t even have to answer it; it was enough to be sitting quietly in my Father’s love hearing Him ask not just “What was the nicest thing that happened to you today?”—a very good and important question—but also “What hurt you today? What made you feel sad, or angry, or helpless?” He cares. He wants to be with me in whatever life holds, however lovely or painful, small or large. There is room in God’s love for all of me.
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“You belong to Me. You live in my world. And I give myself to you.” The preacher spoke the words, a paraphrase of God’s final words in Ezekiel 34, over us at the end of yesterday’s service.
Earlier in the service we had sung “This is my Father’s world,” and I’d remembered the hours I’d spent ten or so years ago arranging pictures from my little village in Afghanistan to that song. I’d needed to remember, in the middle of my years there, that “though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.” I’ve needed to remember again recently, as I’ve watched, from a distance, a hospital going up in flames, staff and patients victim to a series of impossible-to-understand bombs dropped by people who are supposed to be trying to help.
There is so much beauty in the world, and courage and life. And there is so much wrong.
In the world.
In my country.
In my own heart.
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I pulled out my Freedom Journal last night, that place where I write things I need to bring to Jesus and leave with him. I’m using a journal a friend gave me in high school, one which has sat, empty, on my shelf for twenty-five years. I’ve never loved it. It was too dark, too stark; I wanted pretty. Now I can’t imagine another journal that could speak the strong, gentle truth more perfectly. It’s a somber black with threads of gold woven through it, defying the darkness. Its unlined pages haven’t provided enough structure for my perfectionism, but they offer plenty of grace-filled space for the messiness of life. A flap folds over to cover the raw edges of the pages, and a gold cord, long enough to wrap around it three complete turns, closes it.
I opened it last night. I had a list to bring to Jesus.
And when I’d finished writing, I turned again to the front, to the words I wrote when I first used the journal: “I leave this process with you and will soon close the book, letting this process be enfolded in your embrace and wrapped around with the glorious love of the Trinity. Where could this process, this journey toward freedom that matters so much to me be any safer?” The words sometimes change: in the moments when I feel like I’m trying to choose not the best candidate but the least bad one, “where could this country that I love be any safer?” Where but enfolded in the embrace of the Trinity could this friendship, this project, this world, be any safer?
We belong to Him. We live in His world. And He, daily, offers Himself to us.
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“For what moment today are you most grateful? Least grateful?” The two questions are blurring, becoming one. As I become honest in God’s presence about the things that hurt and find myself once again loved—I God’s, and He mine—that tender moment of lovedness becomes the moment in the day for which I am most grateful.

Why you don’t need to fear evil

DSCN5747I step out the back door. The sun should have risen by now but who can tell? The world feels heavy as thick grey presses low against us.

I’m wearing my too-close-to-orange running shirt and black bottoms and this day feels too much like a shivery Halloween night. A crow sits black and silent on a fence post as I run past.

I listened this morning to Jesus warning Peter of his denial and I feared my own weakness; where would I deny Jesus today? “Oh, Father, you who rule everything, may your name be praised. Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth—in me—as it is in heaven. . . . Lead me not into temptation, and when temptation does come, save me from giving in to evil. . .”

In this morning’s grey, I felt like I’d just stepped into Moretto da Brescia’s Christ in the Wilderness. There’s fog, and dark shadows, and the landscape is barren with ragged rocks. When I looked at the painting a couple of days ago, at first I just felt heaviness. As I continued to look, I began to see what is really going on: birds and animals encircle Jesus, each bowed in worship; angels hover, eager to serve. Even the great lion sits calm and docile with head lowered. Only the curving body of the snake moves toward Jesus’ heel. But the snake is small, small and as pale as the dust on which it slithers. He is dust, a creature like all the other creatures surrounding Jesus who sits dressed in royal red and blue. Fierce fangs notwithstanding, the snake remains a mere creature, no more danger to the outworking of the mighty plan of God than any other creature. The snake strikes—and in the same instant finds his head crushed.

“The God of peace will soon crush Satan underneath your feet.” (Rom 16:20; cf Ps 91:13; 1 Cor 6:3)

The death blow of the cross continues under our feet, Jesus in us continuing to crush the head of the serpent. Maybe snake-crushing victory is always heralded by the sting of a bitten heel. Maybe we only know the serpent-slaying power of grace through wilderness struggle and Gethsemane tears and face-to-face encounter with sin.

Know this, friend: We may fail. God will not. Satan is small and conquered—no greater threat to the outworking of God’s purposes in world affairs or in your church or in my life than he was to the unfolding of God’s plan in the life of Jesus.

“I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” (Matt 16:18)

“. . . being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” (Phil 1:6)

I run home, fallen leaves crushed crisp under my feet.