I have been meditating a lot lately on a simple sentence from the book of Psalms: “Be still and know that I am God.” [Psalm 46:10**]

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However, knowing who God is–that’s not so simple. Immediately I encounter two significant challenges. The first is the capacity of my mind, which is limited.

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The second is the ‘size’ and complexity of who God is. It’s like a fly trying to grasp what an elephant is like.

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The analogy of a fly for a human being who is made a little less than God [Psalm 8:5] turns out to be more appropriate than you might think. Because the lowly fly is another of the Creator’s incredible creatures.**

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When it comes to seeing, instead of having a single eye, a fly has three to six thousand visual receptors in a compound eye. Each receptor functions as an individual eye. What the fly perceives is like a mosaic created by all the receptors.**

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The downside of this arrangement is that a fly is short-sighted, unable to focus, and has limited color vision. But still, I think it’s impressive that a 6 millimeter-long creature can see anything at all. Perhaps just as impressive that I can contemplate the One who made me.

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I can accept that I may be slightly more incredible than a house fly, and that I have–let’s say–ten thousand mental receptors. Even then, the image I form of God is going to be partial and incomplete.

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Just like these pictures of an elephant that show the amazing variety of colors, textures, and shapes that make up the whole.

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Hard, soft, smooth, hairy, wrinkly, dusty, wet, gray, pink, ivory, pointed, round, curved, squat, long. These are all aspects of one creature.

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When it comes to who God is, a list of how He is described in the Bible would easily include a couple hundred words**:

King and Father,
Creator and Sustainer,
Shepherd and Rock,
Comforter and Convictor,
Redeemer and Judge,
Rescuer and Intercessor,
Almighty and Counselor.

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Given who God is in all His glory, how can we ever know Him? Thankfully, the multifaceted, complex, ineffable** God stooped down and took on human form in Jesus so we could see and touch and hear Him.

When the time came, He set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! Having become human, He stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges. Instead, He lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death—and the worst kind of death at that—a crucifixion. [Phillipians 2:6-8, The Message]

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But that is only one glimpse of who God is.

Because of that obedience, God lifted Him high and honored Him far beyond anyone or anything, ever, so that all created beings in heaven and on earth—even those long ago dead and buried—will bow in worship before this Jesus Christ, and call out in praise that He is the Master of all, to the glorious honor of God the Father. [Phillipians 2:9-11, The Message] Littletons, Seven Fountains crucifix 073

The season of Lent is a good reminder of how amazing God is in all of His fullness. Jesus humbled and Jesus exalted, the suffering servant and the Lord of lords, separated by death and coming again as the triumphant king.

I have a lot to learn.

This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us.” I John 3:16

**Links
Be Still by Stephen Curtis Chapman

the lowly fly is another of the Creator’s incredible creatures.**

What the fly perceives is like a mosaic created by all the receptors.**

a list of how God is described in the Bible**

ineffable**: too great or extreme to be expressed or described in words

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Recently I have been lamenting [and what an apt word that is] the deep pain and hurt I have caused in someone’s life. The damage rose out of my selfishness which, like ordinary mold, comes in thousands upon thousands of varieties. In its myriad forms, my selfishness generates both sins of commission and sins of omission. On a daily basis, I caused hurt by my unloving actions as much as by my unloving failure to act.

This morning as I lamented, I turned to the day’s entry in “God the Enough”, a little devotional guide by Selwyn Hughes. There was God’s incredible response to my lament:

But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. Romans 5:20-21

Hughes goes on to ask:
“Is there enough grace in the heart of God to meet and overcome the difficulties created by evil?”

That is a question I have been wrestling with on a personal level. Is there enough grace to meet the difficulties of *my* evil?

The answer is “Yes, in Christ.” And three weeks into Lent seems a good time to ponder how God brought this grace into our world. Hughes explains it like this:

“Sin is without a doubt the biggest problem God has ever had to deal with. When we read the four gospels we see something of the pain God has gone through in order to defeat sin and its consequences. They spell out in terms that are crystal clear how much anguish sin brought to the heart of the Deity. The theologian Martin Kahler worded it like this: ‘The four Gospels are shaped as passion narratives with long introductions. At the heart of each Gospel is a pool of pain.’

Throughout the centuries, Christians have always evaluated the horror of sin by the suffering needed to atone for it. Cornelius Plantinga, in his book Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be, spells out the issue in these poignant words:

‘The ripping and writhing of a body on a cross, the bizarre metaphysical maneuver of using death to defeat death, the urgency of the summons to human beings to ally themselves with the events of Christ and with the Person of those events, and then to make that Person and those events the center of their lives—these tell us the main human trouble is desperately difficult to fix, even for God, and that sin is the longest running of all human emergencies.’”

I was struck by the idea that sin is not just my problem, it is God’s problem too. I think I’ve viewed my sin akin to losing at musical chairs. I tried, I failed, and I had to leave the game.

But God viewed my wrongdoing [and everyone else’s] as a problem for Himself. Not only did I suffer the loss of His fellowship, He suffered the loss of mine because the loss brought on by sin goes both ways.

His love for me is not all about me. It’s about Him. Why else would He want to make things right again? Only Love would be willing to sacrifice in order to rescue the lost beloved.

This brings me back to my lament. I see that God is able to sympathize with my sorrow over sin because He also experienced this. But His “pain of searing loss” was on a different level. His sorrow over the suffering of Jesus was pure, undeserved, gracious. He knew beforehand how exquisitely painful the experience would be, yet He was still willing to endure it. Not only for my sake, but also for His.

I am more than ever in awe of His amazing, holy love for me. For this love generates grace abounding, grace all-sufficient, grace increasing without end. Amen.

Speaking of my Father

February 12, 2015 — Leave a comment

See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!
I John 3:1

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“How great is a Father’s love to his children! That which friendship cannot do, and mere benevolence will not attempt, a father’s heart and hand must do for his children. They are his offspring, he must bless them; they are his children, he must show himself strong in their defense. If an earthly father watches over his children with unceasing love and care, how much more does our heavenly Father? Abba, Father!
…There is heaven in the depth of that word–Father! There is all I can ask; all my necessities can demand; all my wishes can desire. I have all in all to all eternity when I can say, ‘Father.'”
Charles Spurgeon

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So, friends, we can now—without hesitation—walk right up to God, into “the Holy Place.” Jesus has cleared the way by the blood of his sacrifice, acting as our priest before God. The “curtain” into God’s presence is his body. So let’s do it—full of belief, confident that we’re presentable inside and out. Hebrews 10:19-22 [The Message]

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  “Calling God “Abba” is entering into the same intimate, fearless, trusting, and empowering relationship with God that Jesus had…Calling God “Abba, Father” (see Roman 8:15; Galatians 4:6) is a cry of the heart, a prayer welling up from our innermost being.  It has nothing do with naming God but everything to do with claiming God as the source of who we are.  This claim does not come from any sudden insight or acquired conviction…it is the claim of love.”
Henri Nouwen

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“One Thing Remains”

Higher than the mountains that I face
Stronger than the power of the grave
Constant through the trial and the change
One thing… Remains

Your love never fails, never gives up
Never runs out on me

On and on and on and on it goes
It overwhelms and satisfies my soul
And I never, ever, have to be afraid
One thing remains

In death, In life, I’m confident and
covered by the power of Your great love
My debt is paid, there’s nothing that can
separate my heart from Your great love…”

Not just a name

February 6, 2015 — 2 Comments

Recently I have been feeling the weight of my sinfulness and the many ways I go off God’s path, following my petty selfish desires. Even my righteous acts don’t make the grade:
All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags. Isaiah 64:4

Thankfully, at the same time I have been aware that Jesus can wash me clean and restore my relationship with Him. With Peter, I’ve been praying, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” [John 13:9] I am finding it helpful to follow a personal liturgy for confessionadapted from The Book of Common Prayer, with commentary by David Powlison on each phrase in the prayer.

He begins:
“Even when your thoughts and feelings are chaotic, these words can serve as your guide. They are a channel for honesty. Instead of wallowing in misery and failure, these words help you to plan how you will walk in the direction of honesty, mercy, gratitude, and freedom.”

Today, I didn’t get further than the prayer’s opening greeting:
“Almighty and most merciful Father”

Here are Powlison’s comments on that simple phrase:

“Notice that you are talking with someone who is both all powerful and most merciful. The God and Father of Jesus Christ is the God of comfort and Father of mercies. God becomes your Father, our Father who art in heaven, through Jesus. He loved you in the exact way you most need help and rescue from outside yourself. He died in your place. He laid down his life for you. He is alive. He pursues you. Someday you will see him face to face. He comes to you in person, giving his Holy Spirit, who makes you childlike towards him: “Abba, Father!” You need this Father of life, this living Savior, this life-giving Spirit. Turn to him. Call on him for help.
 
Don’t mistake the true God for other things. For example, what if your human father was weak, absent, fickle or harsh? The reason you know that such things are wrong is that you have a God-implanted sense within you: a true father should be strong, involved, faithful, generous and tender. Your true Father welcomes you. He is glad to see you and willingly listens to you. He will protect you. He will hear you. He is merciful. He is generous-hearted. He will help you. He will give you what you truly need.”

In particular, this echoed in my heart:
“He pursues you… He comes to you in person, giving his Holy Spirit, who makes you childlike towards him: “Abba, Father!” You need this Father of life, this living Savior, this life-giving Spirit.”

God does not wait for me to come to Him. He is pursuing me. He comes to me with life, and welcomes me into His holy of holies. He makes it possible for me to enter into His presence. The work and effort is His.

Because of this, I don’t have to wait until I have cleaned up my act. And I don’t come as a grown-up who has it all together, but as a child, calling out, “Abba–Papa”.

I am not asking forgiveness from some distant, impersonal divine being. I’m approaching my Father who created me in love and with love, to be loved by Him. He is personal, intimate, present with me. He answers back to me, “Yes, I am here for you now. Come. Be washed. Be clean.”

This is my confidence. I can come without any hesitation. ‘Father’ is not just a name. It describes our relationship. It explains why He wants to forgive me. It testifies how His love never runs out on me.

“In death, In life, I’m confident and
covered by the power of Your great love
My debt is paid, there’s nothing that can
separate my heart from Your great love.”
[One Thing Remains]

Because of this, perhaps the biggest wonder is not that the all-powerful, all-knowing, all-holy God lavishes His love on me, but that it takes me so long to come to Him.

I want to learn to stay closer, to return faster, to delight more in His love. And this is just what my Father wants for me too.

He waits. He beckons. He invites. He whispers, “Come.”

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I find I can easily read a passage of scripture and gloss over its import for my life. I read about other people, at other points in history and I can forget that this is also God’s word to me. Recently, I found myself doing that as I read Psalm 35.

Your love, Lord, reaches to the heavens,
   Your faithfulness to the skies.
Your righteousness is like the highest mountains,
   Your justice like the great deep.
   You, Lord, preserve both people and animals.
How priceless is Your unfailing love, O God!
   People take refuge in the shadow of Your wings.
They feast on the abundance of Your house;
   You give them drink from Your river of delights.
For with You is the fountain of life;
   in Your light we see light.

Psalm 36:5-9

So I want back and spent some time translating the meaning into my own life:

 Your love, Lord, reaches to the heavens,
Your love includes me in its reach. I live under it, in it.

   Your faithfulness [reaches] to the skies.
Your faithfulness extends to my life, from its beginning to end, and to the people in my life, including my family.

Your righteousness is like the highest mountains,
Your righteousness is always there for me, tall and immovable, unaffected by the stormy assaults of evil.
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   Your justice like the great deep.
Your concern for victims of abusive power is not shallow. It’s deep like the ocean–a deep well that never dries up as You work to make things fair and right again.

   You, Lord, preserve both people and animals.
You preserve me.

How priceless is Your unfailing love, O God!
Your love for me never fails. You are never impatient, irritated, distracted with me. You are never dismissive, critical, accusing of me. You are always seeking my best.

 People take refuge in the shadow of Your wings.
When I need shelter from the difficulties of life or from enemies that seek to harm me, I can take refuge in You, drawing close to Your side and remaining under Your protection.
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They feast on the abundance of Your house;
When I come into Your home, the place of Your presence and Your family, You invite me to feast at Your table, from Your never-ending supply of food for my soul.

   You give them drink from Your river of delights.

You meet my thirst, not with mere water but with a clear bubbling drink of refreshment that fills me with joy.

For with You is the fountain of life;
My life is drawn from the never-ending life that pours from You,

   in Your light we see light.
Because of You, I am.
I am able to see You only because You gave me the eyes of my heart.

Amen.

We talk about having a quiet time with God. Why not have a dance time too?

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“How can we not sing and make music to You in our hearts?
How can we possibly remain silent and still, in response to who You are and everything You’ve done for us, Jesus?
Forgive us when we, like the elder brother, remain smugly on the outside of the house of redemption—off the dance floor of Your reconciling love (Luke 15:25).
Cause us to hear the Father speaking to us right now: “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours” (Luke 15:31).
Indeed, Lord, forgive us for confusing reverence with rigor mortis.
Forgive us for giving You ardor-less order when we worship You.
Forgive us for living more by our temperament tests, Myers-Briggs profiles, and personality types than by the lyric, music, and dance of the gospel.
Free us from giving You a measured response to a measureless gospel.” Scotty Smith

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We will dance, we will dance for Your glory
We will dance, we will dance for Your glory
We will dance for Your glory, Lord
We will lift up a shout to adore You
Every sound that we make, it is for You
We will dance for Your glory, Lord

For salvation’s in this place
You’re the name by which we’re saved, Jesus, Jesus
Let Your name be lifted high
As our thankful hearts now cry, “Jesus, Jesus”

Lift up your heads, you ancient gates
Be lifted up, you ancient doors
The King is coming in, the King is coming in
We lift up a shout to shake the skies
Lift up a cry, “Be glorified!”
The King is coming in, the King is coming in

We’re the people of God with a song to sing
And we’re bringing our lives as an offering
We will dance for Your glory, Lord
And Your cross is the hope that we hold up high
As we tell the whole world of Your love and life
We will dance for Your glory, Lord ”
Matt Redman

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“The fuel of worship is a true vision of the greatness of God;
the fire that makes the fuel burn white hot is the quickening of the Holy Spirit;
the furnace made alive and warm by the flame of truth is our renewed spirit;
and the resulting heat of our affections is powerful worship,
pushing its way out in confessions, longings, acclamations, tears, songs, shouts, bowed heads, lifted hands, and obedient lives.”
John Piper

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Dance, dance, everybody dance
Everybody sing for joy is in this place now

Amazing grace how sweet the sound
To save a wretch like me
I once was lost but now am found
Was blind but now I see

Dance, dance, everybody dance
Everybody sing for joy is in this place now

Your joy is in this place now”
Tim Hughes

One of the highlights of last year was dancing at my niece’s wedding. Under a big tent by the sea, guests of all ages–kids and parents and grandparents and even great-grandparents–joined in. As the DJ played song after song, we shimmied, boogied, shuffled, hopped, and twirled to the music.

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Dancing is the perfect way to celebrate a joyful occasion like a wedding because when we’re filled with joy we can’t sit still. It starts to bubble up inside and then gushes out, like a child so excited they start running around the house. No wonder the Hebrew word for joy ‘gil’ can be literally translated as spinning around in joy. There’s an exuberance to deep joy that can’t be contained.

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That’s what happened with King David as he brought the ark of the Lord back to Jerusalem. He was so overcome with joy that he was leaping and dancing before the Lord.

Later Saul’s daughter criticized him because he had acted undignified in front of everyone. But David told her he wasn’t dancing to the crowd, he was dancing before the Lord. “I will celebrate before the Lord. I will become even more undefined than this, and I will be humiliated in my own eyes.” [2 Samuel 6:21-22] He wasn’t worried if he didn’t look respectable. It was more important to him to express the joy he felt inside to the Lord.

By nature and upbringing, I’m more like Saul’s daughter than David. My cultural heritage is a mixture of German and New England. My early church background included Lutheran, Congregational and Presbyterian churches where worship falls on the reverent and restrained side.

To dance or even move my feet during worship was completely foreign to me. [There’s a reason Presbyterians are sometimes referred to, tongue in cheek, as “God’s frozen chosen”.] Then I attended services where people were more exuberant as they praised God. I saw worship could include raising arms in the air, clapping, dancing in the aisles, and shouting.

In fact, the Psalms encourage us to dance when we praise God:

Praise Him with the sounding of the trumpet,
   praise Him with the harp and lyre,
praise Him with timbrel and dancing,
   praise Him with the strings and pipe,
praise Him with the clash of cymbals,
   praise Him with resounding cymbals.

Psalm 150:3-5

We’ve just finished the Christmas season, the grand celebration of the Word becoming flesh and living among us. It’s an annual reminder that the life of faith is not just lived on a spiritual level. We’re physical beings too. Our spirits are housed in our bodies, and our arms and legs can be instruments of praise.

It’s also a season of great joy.
We read, “I bring you good news of great joy.”
We sing, “Joy to the world, the Lord has come.”
A savior is born! Now we can walk in the light! Gloria in excelsis deo!

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I think of the song about the little drummer boy who played his drum for the infant Jesus. Perhaps my gift can be to dance before the Lord. Yes, I may look undignified. I may feel silly and embarrassed. But if I can forget about being respectable, I can give the honor and praise that is due Him by using my entire being; my hands, my feet, my voice, my arms, my legs. What better way to celebrate the Word becoming flesh?

You turned my wailing into dancing;
    You removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy,
that my heart may sing Your praises and not be silent.
    Lord my God, I will praise You forever.

Psalm 30:11-12

How do you express your joy?
What songs would you suggest for praising God with dance?

Protected by the Rock

January 10, 2015 — 1 Comment

A week spent in a region of mountain walls and towering stones has given me a fresh look at what it means that the Lord is my rock.

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The tiny village where I stayed was built between two rocks. Whether I looked to the left or to the right, I was never out of sight of a large rock wall facing me. The rocks rose up and stood guard over me. Solid, immovable, they gave protection from the elements. I felt secure, nestled in their shadow. At sunrise, I would go outside, and the rocks were there, having kept watch all night.

I traveled down into the valley, and walked in the fields. But when I returned, the rocks were always waiting for me.

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It was a visible reminder of how God never disappears from my life, of how His strength and protection is always there for me. I am secure in Him.

Entrepierres 063But the LORD has become my stronghold,
and my God the rock of my refuge.

Psalm 94:22

Along the river, a citadel fortress reminded me of how I can rest safe in the Lord.
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I love You, LORD, my strength.
The LORD is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer.

Psalm 18:1,2

The tiny church of the tiny village stands witness to God’s faithfulness and love.
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let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation!

Psalm 95:1

Walking along the road, the rock never left my side.
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for the Lord, the Lord, is the Rock eternal.

Isaiah 25:3-4

Looking down at the citadel which has stood firm for centuries of wind and war, I thought of Jesus’ wisdom about building our house on a rock.
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Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them
will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock.
And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house,
but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock.

Matthew 7:24-25

As I enter into another year, this is 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.

Psalm 61:2
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“O Source of all Good,
What shall I render to Thee for the gift of gifts,
Thine own dear Son, begotten, not created,
my Redeemer, Proxy, Surety, Substitute,
His self-emptying incomprehensible,
His infinity of love beyond the heart’s grasp…

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O God, take me in spirit to the watchful shepherds,
and enlarge my mind;
let me hear good tidings of great joy,
and hearing, believe, rejoice, praise, adore,
my conscience bathed in an ocean of repose,
my eyes uplifted to a reconciled Father,

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place me with ox, ass, camel, goat,
to look with them upon my Redeemer’s face,
and in Him account myself delivered from sin;
let me with Simeon clasp the new-born Child to my heart,
embrace Him with undying faith,
exulting that He is mine and I am His.”
Puritan Prayers

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For all the glory that comes with Christmas, there’s one more gem I want to treasure: God’s sacrifice.

“Sometimes we sentimentalize Christmas…focusing on the sights, sounds, and smells of Christmas that give us good feelings. Dazzling decorations, fresh baked sugar cookies, poinsettias, family get-togethers, gift shopping, twinkling lights, Christmas carols, cards from friends, tree-cutting expeditions, wrapping presents. Of course, all these Christmas traditions are an expression of common grace, for which we can joyfully thank God… But man-made traditions aren’t the whole story, or even the main story of Christmas, and they fail to solve our deepest problems or fulfill our deepest needs.”
Bob Kauflin

Jesus didn’t come to be a good teacher. He didn’t come to promote universal love. He didn’t come to abolish the law. Jesus was born to die. Good Friday was already waiting in the shadows.

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But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. Galatians 4:4-5

Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil— and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.
Hebrews 2:14-15

“When I was undone, with no will to return to him,
and no intellect to devise recovery, he came,
God-incarnate, to save me to the uttermost
as man to die my death,
to shed satisfying blood on my behalf,
to work out a perfect righteousness for me.”
Puritan Prayers

Christmas is only the beginning.

Mystery, messiness suffering: does this mean there is no place for Christmas celebration? Not at all. It is because of these gems, not in spite of them, that we can and should burst out in praise:

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“O come all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant…”

“Hail the heav’n born Prince of Peace! Hail the Sun of Righteousness!”

“Joy to the world! the Lord is come.”

…that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

Phillipians 2: 10-11

A second gem of Christmas

December 20, 2014 — 1 Comment

The mystery of God taking on flesh, is astounding enough. But there is another unexpected gem of Christmas: mess.

“We sanitize Christmas when we only present a picture-perfect, storybook rendition of what took place in Bethlehem 2000 years ago…The straw in the manger is fresh and clean. There’s no umbilical cord to cut and no blood. It’s a “silent night.” The surroundings are strangely free from the pungent odor of manure. Joseph and Mary are calm, cool, and collected. Everyone gets a good night’s sleep. There’s no controversy or gossip surrounding the birth. It’s a pleasant, appealing way to think about Christmas, but obscures the foulness, uncertainty, and sin that Jesus was born into. We forget that rather than coming for the put-together, well-to-do, and self-sufficient, Jesus identified with the rejected, the slandered, the helpless, and the poor.”
Bob Kauflin

Jesus came to live in the world He created, a world of beauty and delight. But it was also a world broken by sin, an uncomfortable world.

Along with the fragrance of warm bread, there was the stench of rotting flesh.

The song of a goldfinch was drowned out by the curses of an angry neighbor.
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Along with the beauty of a spring meadow there were deformed limbs, misshapen faces, leprosy.

The sweetness of honey came with painful stings.

Along with soft sheep’s wool, there were cold nights sleeping on scratchy straw.

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Besides the external mess, Jesus experienced discomfort in the flesh:
*hunger
*weariness
*sorrow

And as if that wasn’t enough,
He was despised and rejected by mankind,
a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.
Like one from whom people hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.

Isaiah 53:3

This High Priest of ours understands our weaknesses, for He faced all of the same testings we do– yet He did not sin. Hebrews 4:15

Physical discomfort, the emotional pain of loss and betrayal, the spiritual suffering of temptation–these were all part of the life of Jesus. They make the birth we celebrate not a weak, watered-down present but a precious gift of love.

The gems of Christmas

December 17, 2014 — Leave a comment

I love the rich cultural heritage of Christmas: treasured ornaments, warm candles, the smell of pine, Christmas cookies, chocolate, bells, Christmas music. It’s a beautiful season of wonder and joy.

But there are three special elements I often forget and I want to be sure these gems are added to my celebration this year.

The first is mystery.

“The miracle and meaning of the Incarnation can be so difficult to grasp that we can give up and start to view Christmas in ways that leave us impoverished and unimpressed with the real story. Even in the church our songs and reflections about Christmas can fail to leave people gasping in amazement or humbled in awe that God would come to dwell among us.”
Bob Kauflin

I don’t want to skim over the mystery of the Creator being born in the form of what He created, including:
*toes that collected dust and dirt
*hair that blew in the wind
*a stomach that digested olives and figs and fish
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*lungs that inhaled the brisk winter air of Palestine
*cheeks that became sore with laughing
*eyes that overflowed with tears

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This reality should make me awestruck in a jaw-dropping, heart-thumping kind of way. Or bring me to my knees.

“That man should be made in God’s image is a wonder,
but that God should be made in man’s image is a greater wonder.
That the Ancient of Days would be born.
That He who thunders in the heavens should cry in the cradle…”
—Thomas Watson

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Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.

Phillipians 2:6-7

Mystery indeed.

And the man of all sorrows, He never forgot
What sorrow is carried by the hearts that He bought
So when the questions dissolve into the silence of God
The aching may remain but the breaking does not
—-Andrew Peterson [lyrics from his song, The Silence of God]

♦◊♦

I will lead the blind by ways they have not known,
       along unfamiliar paths I will guide them;
       I will turn the darkness into light before them
       and make the rough places smooth.
       These are the things I will do;
       I will not forsake them.
Isaiah 42:16

♦◊♦

Many of us are in an ideal place to begin Advent, but we don’t know it. It can be tempting to think that, because we are struggling these days, we can’t enter into Advent without a big change in our mood or without distancing ourselves from our real experience. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Advent is about letting God come to us. We do the letting and God does the coming. .. We are tempted to prepare for Advent by cleaning everything up first – by, in effect, saving ourselves first. Our opening to Advent is to realize we need saving and to accept the saving love of our God.
—Creighton University Advent devotion

Dark night waiting

December 3, 2014 — Leave a comment

Anyone who has woken up in the middle of the night and has not been able to get back to sleep understands how desolate darkness is. Time becomes suspended. The numbers on the clock seem to be stuck. There is silence, emptiness, deep shadows. The day feels very far away. There is no one else around to comfort you or share the misery of sleeplessness. You are on your own.

Of course we know that eventually the sun will rise again. We have to wait but we are certain it is only a matter of time before the day will begin. It’s like our Advent waiting. We mark off the weeks, knowing that there are only four of them. The Advent wreath with its beautiful candlelight pretties up the shadows, so we don’t it feel so alone. Each time we add another candle, the light increases, a sign that we are making progress, that time is moving, that the end–or the beginning–is coming. Even better, we know where the story is going. We know that the angels are coming to sing in bright glory and the darkness will be overcome. And in the meantime, there are presents to be bought and cookies to be made and decorations to be hung. The waiting is festive.

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However sometimes there can be dark places in our lives where the promise of coming light seems impossible. A place that is so dark and lonely, there seems to be no hope and we easily fall into doubt, thinking “what if I am a fool for believing the promise?”

I have a few places in my life right now where I am waiting in the dark. Living in the time of ‘not yet’ is not easy. It’s not comfortable or peaceful or infused with happiness. Anxiety buzzes. Fear spouts. Terror blooms. A terrible darkness comes to my heart as the night moves inside. It feels awful not to be in control. But even worse, there is no laboring to be done. With my hands idle, my mind races around going over one scenario and then another. Unlike a woman waiting to give birth, I have no idea how long I will have to wait. And what if I’m waiting for nothing? What if the rains don’t come and the sun doesn’t shine and the seed I’ve planted in the ground doesn’t come to life? What if I’m only waiting for a death?

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I try not to dwell on it. My impulse is to fill the time, to find a way to distract myself from the awfulness of not knowing. But I can’t help it and every so often I go and check the soil where I’ve planted a seed. The ground is still dead, the earth is still dry. I begin to hear the whispering accusation: “Is God really going to take care of you?”

I hope so, I think so. But to trust God and to remain open to Him during the darkness is not something I would ever choose. I want to fix the darkness. I want to solve the problem. I want to make things happen. But in the darkness, I hear God say, “Wait. Wait. I am coming.”

So I keep waiting–I don’t really have a choice, but I start to feel dread. What if my advent doesn’t bring me the salvation of a kingly triumph that I’m looking for? What if it is more like a weak, vulnerable baby born in a stable? Or what if it is like a suffering servant who goes through an even greater darkness?

From noon until three in the afternoon darkness came over all the land. About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli,lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”). [Matthew 27:45-46]

In Jesus’ agonizing cry, I find a response to my dread. Because as I remain in the hopeless dark, I find a great High Priest who waits with me. He knows the shadows even better than I do. He is able to sympathize with my terror. He knows what it is like to be tempted to despair.

And He also knows what it is like to wait. Countless times He has waited for me to come to Him and receive the mercy and grace I need. He has waited through my stubbornness and self-pity and rebellion, as well as my brokenness and pain. And in this awful advent of mine, He is waiting again for me to call out to Him, so I will know I am not alone. For He is Emmanuel: God with us.
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[edited from the archives]

“The underlying sin behind every sin is treason against the One who made us for love and flourishing. Sin is insanity and destroys what is good, right, and true. Sin makes no sense, is not rational, nor can be reasoned with. Sin thrives in darkness and hates the light. Sin opposes everything God loves and is compelled to ruin God’s plans and purposes to put this world right.

Though the whole human race participates in this defiance, God is unshakably committed to extending his healing grace as far as this deadly curse is found. … He does so, not by acts of military might or zealous terror, but by swallowing the curse like a bitter pill. He enters this fractured world, places himself in our guilty place and endures the strength and horror of evil on a Roman cross until it is fully exhausted through him. He bears the full blast of God’s wrath against all the powers of hell aligned against us.”
David Fairchild

♦◊♦

“The salvation of God … stands on the sacrificial death of Jesus…
Sinful men and women can be changed into new creatures,
not by their repentance or their belief,
but by the marvelous work of God in Christ Jesus which is prior to all experience.”
Oswald Chambers

♦◊♦

“That hand which multiplied the loaves,
which saved sinking Peter,
which upholds afflicted saints,
which crowns believers,
that same hand will touch every seeking sinner,
and in a moment make him or her clean.
The love of Jesus is the source of salvation.
He loves,
He looks,
He touches us,
we live.”
Charles Spurgeon

Worse than Ebola

November 19, 2014 — 2 Comments

These past months, the news has been filled with tragic stories about Ebola and how the deadly virus has moved rapidly through families and communities. We’ve seen how constant vigilance and sometimes drastic measures are required to prevent the virus from spreading further.

Health workers who treat Ebola victims wear ten items of personal protective gear, including inner and outer gloves. They need to follow 14 steps when putting on the gear, and 24 steps when taking it off which they do under the watchful eye of a trained observer.

Step 16:
“Remove the N95 respirator by tilting the head slightly forward, grasping first the bottom tie or elastic strap, then the top tie or elastic strap, and remove without touching the front of the N95 respirator. Discard N95 respirator.” US Center for Disease Control

I imagine brave health workers pay very close attention to these steps. They know that one little slip can result in getting the disease.

God’s drastic measures
In the past when I’ve read Old Testament instructions for dealing with unclean things, they have seemed excessive to my modern sensibilities. But as I’ve learned more about a virus like Ebola, I’ve come to a better appreciation of God’s approach.

I recently read Numbers 19, where God tells the Israelites how to make water of cleansing to purify people who have touched dead bodies. Like the instructions for using Ebola-resistant protective gear, His commands are specific and hard to summarize. Let’s just say they involve blood, burning, and a lot of washing.

And if a person fails to comply? “Whoever touches the dead body of anyone and fails to purify himself defiles the Lord’s tabernacle. That person must be cut off from Israel.” Numbers 19:13

When you see how contagious a disease like Ebola is, God’s method of purification suddenly makes a lot more sense. His requirements, whether for physical cleanliness or spiritual holiness, have one goal in mind. He wants to save life. He wants to protect us from death.

Battling spiritual Ebola
And the spiritual virus which infects our world is far more potent and lethal than physical Ebola. Created by Adam and Eve’s disobedience, sin has spread fast and furious through communities in every age, fueling a spiritual pandemic that thrives from one generation to another.

The sin virus sometimes retreats through moral living. There have been times and places in the world where the deadly effects of the spiritual disease have been reduced. But the virus always comes back, bringing hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions, and envy [Galatians 5:19-21].

Deadly serious
In the first months of the current Ebola outbreak, people didn’t always recognize the seriousness of the disease or how deadly it was. We can do the same with sin. We can pretend this spiritual pandemic is a myth, or that we are immune from its effects.

We can think the warnings we hear about it aren’t really true, that they’re just scare tactics. Or that we’re too enlightened to catch it. Or that it’s a problem for someone else, but we’re safe because we’re extra careful. Or that we should be rewarded for decades of good behavior. But sin remains rampant, toxic, and 100% fatal.

The glorious cure
Every person had been infected and there is only one permanent cure. Just like the blood of Ebola survivors is used to save new victims, the blood of Jesus is the ultimate vaccine for the sin virus. In the most drastic measure of all, God had His son die to save us. It was the only way.

Because of the sacrifice of the Messiah, His blood poured out on the altar of the Cross, we’re a free people–free of penalties and punishments chalked up by all our misdeed. And not just barely free, either. Abundantly free!” {Ephesians 1:7-8, The Message]

What great news! There’s a cure for all the sin-sick. The scourge of the earth has been beaten back. “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” [I Corinthians 14:54] No one has to stay in quarantine. God welcomes each of us back to take our place in His holy household. We’re free forever. Hallelujah!

Let all that I am praise the Lord;
      may I never forget the good things He does for me.
He forgives all my sins
      and heals all my diseases.
He redeems me from death
      and crowns me with love and tender mercies.”
Psalm 103:2-4

“Last year alone, ninety three members of my congregation were killed. The threat is particularly great for those who convert to Christianity. I baptized thirteen adults secretly last year. Eleven of them were dead within a week.”
Canon Andrew White serving in Baghdad, Iraq

♦◊♦

If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated Me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. John 15:18-19

♦◊♦

“The Body of Christ is so much more than a local church that meets on Sundays –it is a global body built up of all those who call Him Lord and Saviour. We are called to be one, and it is only together that we make sense and that we function effectively. This, however,
is easier said than done. Even when we sincerely want to be there for our brothers and sisters elsewhere in the world, the manner in which we help and the kind of help we should offer requires careful reflection.” ” Incontext Ministries

♦◊♦

We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned, struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.
II Corinthians 4:8-10

Jesus began to speak first to his disciples, saying: “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy. There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs. Luke 12:1-3

Imagine you live in a small town, and you’re part of a small group from your church. One day you have a mini-retreat in someone’s home. A friend of a friend is in the area and they’ve agreed to come and speak. It’s a happy gathering. You start in the morning with some singing, maybe a little prayer. Then you study a passage from the Bible. You break for lunch and you’re just about to regroup for the afternoon session when 60 police show up at the door. There are several official vehicles parked in front of your house.

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What will the neighbors think?

The police enter, take cell phones and laptops and cameras and notebooks and Bibles. They ask lots of questions. They march all of you out into the waiting police vans, in full view of everyone on the street who is peering out the window or standing in their doorway.

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What will the neighbors say?

The police drive you off to the local station. More people see you as you are led out of the police van and into the station. There is a man who has been caught stealing sitting on the floor. He wonders what you’ve done. The police make you wait and wait. They ask you questions. They make you wait some more. It gets late. Midnight. There are some toddlers in your group. You can’t go out to get food and no one is offering you any. You have no idea what the police will do with you. There is no yellow pages with a list of lawyers you can call. No one reads you your rights.

They ask you more questions. “Are you a Christian?” “Who do you know?” “Will you sign this piece of paper acknowledging that you are a Christian?” “Will you sign this piece of paper saying you’re not?”

At 5 AM, the police release you. They don’t drive you home. The van service was only one-way.

As soon as the corner grocery store opens, you go to buy some food. Other people are leaving to go to work and when they notice you entering the store, they stare at you.
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What will the neighbors do now?

The bolder ones [there’s always at least one in every neighborhood] asks you what happened.
What do you tell them?
Will they be surprised? “You’re a Christian?”
Will they think to themselves, “Yes, that makes sense. I knew there was something strange about her.”
Will they think, “Hmmm, is that why he is so caring?”

Some may be embarrassed for you and ignore you.
Others may shun you, and stop doing business with you.
One–an old friend–may spit on the ground as you pass.


This story is true. It–and myriad variations of it–has happened countless times in the last twenty years, in dozens of countries around the world. It continues to be true today. Search on Google for “Christians arrested in 2013″ and the results are sobering.

It’s not a single region in the world. It’s not believers who were being overly zealous. It’s people like you and me–only when was the last time the police called you in for questioning? Thankfully most of us are able to practice our faith in peace. But that also makes it easy to forget that in many countries following Jesus is dangerous.

This coming Sunday has been designated as the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church, a time to unite in prayer “for the persecuted church in the spirit of oneness.”

Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering. Hebrews 13:3

It’s a challenge to know how we can best respond to our brothers and sisters who are being persecuted. But praying remains a vital and unrestricted activity for all of us. You’ll find more stories, resources, and encouragement here. “Don’t stand in silence.”

One more question:
If your house was bugged, and your words were broadcast for everyone to hear, what would the neighbors think?

[edited from the archives]

Here are three songs that have encouraged me as I journey on:

Never Once
“Scars and struggles on the way
But with joy our hearts can say
Yes, our hearts can say

Never once did we ever walk alone
Never once did You leave us on our own
You are faithful, God, You are faithful”
Matt Redman

♦◊♦

Take Heart
“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” John 16:33

♦◊♦

It is Well with my Soul
“When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say,
It is well, it is well, with my soul.
Refrain
It is well, with my soul,
It is well, with my soul,
It is well, it is well, with my soul.”
Horatio Spafford

As someone who lives overseas, flying is a regular part of my life. Every so often I get an airplane, a nice big safe one, and get ready for another flight.
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I buckle my seat belt, look around for the nearest emergency exit, and settle back. The plane takes off and reaches a comfortable cruising altitude as it flies over mountain ranges and an ocean or two. Occasionally the pilot will give an update or if I’m curious about our progress, I can check the flight path.

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Usually when the plane begins its final descent, I’m in the middle of watching a movie or reading a book. I don’t even notice my gradual return to earth.

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A few months ago, a friend told me about a different kind of flight she once took. She boarded a small plane and flew into a war zone to do humanitarian work. As the plane neared their destination, there was no gradual descent. Instead, to keep out of the range of ground missiles, the plane continued at its cruising altitude until it was almost above the airport. Then it went into an intentional spiral [I would call it a death spiral], making tight circles like a corkscrew as it came down for the landing.

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“During the spiral the crew keeps an eye out for other air traffic, and for anything coming at them from the ground. After several turns, the pilot pulls out of the rotation with careful timing, straightens out, and lands. The whole thing takes seven to 10 minutes, roughly the same as a regular approach, but it all takes place directly overhead, instead of beginning 20 miles from the runway.”

Allan T. Duffin

Listening to my friend’s story, I imagined the plane with its nose pointed down at the ground to avoid being shot down by enemy fire. I could picture me clutching the armrests, my stomach lurching and my mind scrambling as I wondered if the pilot was going to be able to straighten out the plane before it landed splat on the ground. Then I made a ‘note to self': never volunteer for humanitarian work in a war zone.

I have zero desire to ever experience a death spiral like that. That’s also true in my journey through life. I like to keep things even-keeled. I want to cruise above the turbulence and avoid the storms. I prefer to stay out of the way of enemy fire. But sometimes my flight path heads straight into danger and suddenly I’m spinning around and around.

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An illness, a job loss, the death of a close friend, a betrayal, experiences like these can make us feel like our life is doing a death spiral as it plummets to earth. We become anxious and wonder if our pilot is going to be able to pull us out of the spiral before we crash.

That happened a few times to me this past year. I went from a comfortable cruising altitude into what felt like an out-of-control tail spin. It was dizzying and disorienting. At times I felt paralyzed by fear, and other times I wanted to charge into the cockpit and take control of the plane. It was hard to trust God to bring me through the storm and steer me safely home.

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I could identify with the disciples on the boat as they shouted at Jesus to wake him up. “Don’t you care that we’re going to drown?” [Mark 4:38]

After Jesus took care of the storm, He responded to the disciples’ question with one of His own:
Why can’t you trust Me?” [Luke 8:25, The Message]

A pilot’s paraphrase might be: “Don’t worry folks. It may get a little rough out there, but I’ve flown through this kind of turbulence before. And maybe there are guns firing at us, but I know what it’s like to be shot at. Hang on tight and don’t be afraid. I’m with you and I will bring you safely home.”

I need to continually remind myself of this truth because the death spirals I experiences this year won’t be my last ones. Life on this earth is a war zone.

In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” John 16:33

I can have a peace that is beyond all understanding, even in the midst of another death spiral. Jesus, the master of the wind and waves, the conqueror of our worst enemy, is my pilot. I am not alone. And I can trust Him.

Commit your future to the Lord! Trust in Him and He will act on your behalf
Wait patiently for the Lord! Wait confidently for Him.
Psalm 37:5, 7

What has your flight path been like recently?

How do you need to trust God?