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Such As I Am …

… I’m back.

Eight and a half months. That’s how long it took to figure it out. And let’s not tiptoe around the obvious. This isn’t figured out.

It would be great to tell you that I’ve conquered all my personal demons. I would love to say that everything is shipshape in my life and outlook. There’s part of me that really wants to let you believe that the 3/4 of a year that’s passed has been tidily archived and that none of the mess remains.

None of that would be true.

I’ve written that believing that there’s something wrong with me is one of the lies I believe. It’s not a lie. There’s something deeply wrong with me. I run away. I’m weak. I’m inconstant. I’m afraid. I’m lonely.

But this is all I know how to do. So, I’m back.

A friend asked me a great question recently. He’s not a believer, and the irony that his question was the fulcrum for what God was whispering into my heart is rich and deep. Maybe I’ll tell you more about him later. He asked me “Rick, what makes you happy?”

In the middle of all my denial and doubt, in the middle of my self-medication and management of suffering, in the middle of all the agonizing and writhing, the misdirection and self-deception, the pretending and the fakery … there was only one answer to give.

The only thing that makes me happy is knowing and loving my Maker. (I wanna stop you here, because this is the point where you’ll be tempted to think “Aw, how beautiful! Even in the difficulty of his life, he runs after God.” Please don’t fall for that. I really want you to believe that, but the reality is that the moral filth I was sitting in at the moment of this realization makes the Prodigal’s pig pen look like a spa by comparison. I’m not going to share details. Just trust me.)

But, nonetheless, that’s the moment I started to stop. That’s the moment I began to believe the promise again. The promise that He would never leave me nor forsake me. That He never had. That He was chasing me and pursuing me and loving me and calling me back to Him. That He already had one arm out of the robe and the ring held tight in His hand, and was trembling in anticipation of a long run down a dusty road to embrace his beloved son who keeps dying and coming back to life.

So, I’m back. Such as I am.

Ecuador Will Break Your Heart

As I write this, I’m traveling eastward. The mountains are at my back. There’s always something that feels wrong on a visceral level about turning away from them, about heading back to Kansas. They are cathedral to me, sanctuary, a place I have gone to find God so many times. As we were preparing to leave my sister’s house this morning, I told my dad that some day God is going to let me live in Colorado. I also told him that I realized that was just kind of like saying that some day God is going to let me live in heaven, because … well … Colorado.

I was riding somewhere with my nephew and his girlfriend a couple of days ago. We were driving west, toward the Rockies, as the sun was preparing to set behind them. We came over a ridge, and there they were. The view made my breath catch. I leaned forward from the back seat and slowly turned my head to take in the glorious eastern face of the range that stretched as far north and south as I could see. I drank it in with intentionality, aware of the sacredness of the ground beneath me. After several long moments, I was gently shaken from my reverie by the conspicuous lack of reciprocal awe from my vehicle mates.

“You guys don’t even see them anymore, do you?,” I asked. “The mountains.”

My nephew barked a laugh and said “Nope!”  His girlfriend explained that they primarily served as navigational guides for Coloradans.

As we were driving north toward I-70 this morning, they were about the clearest I’ve ever seen them. Fresh snow on distant peaks outlined the stark silhouettes of the foothills. The solidity, the permanence, the predictable constancy reached out to me, comforted me. I soaked it in again, knowing I was getting ready to make that right turn and drive nine hours. I said it almost to myself, perhaps to convince me. “I wouldn’t take this for granted. It would not become common place to me. Not even if I lived here.”

I lived on the side of a mountain in Ecuador for almost five years. Pichincha tops out more than 1,200 feet higher than the highest peak in Colorado, and that was just the mountain in my back yard. The highest point in Ecuador (Chimborazo, which translates from an indigenous tongue as “The Ice Throne of God”) beats Colorado’s Mt. Elbert by more than 6,000 feet. The Andes make the Rockies look like speed bumps. Sure, I remember plenty of requests for directions that started out with the question “Is the mountain on your left or your right?” But I also remember whispered prayers ripped from my soul almost weekly when a thunderstorm would roll over the peak, or that last beam of the waning sun would blaze into your eye as it dropped behind they volcano’s ever-present mass … “My God! I live here!”

For a guy for whom nature virtually shouts of glory and mystery, Ecuador was a soul-bending place to live. Our apartment was at 9,300 feet. We were five hours from the beach on one side of the country and five hours from the Amazon basin on the other. I’ve seen condors circle me at the top of a foothill in the highlands. I’ve seen crater lakes with unfathomable depths of alien blue water. I’ve eaten weird rodents five-hour canoe rides deep in the jungle. And I’ve watched from the beach many, many times as the sun fell dying into the Pacific in fiery struggles of purple, orange, and red. Ecuador was glorious … and it was the hardest place I’ve ever lived.

My marriage did most of its dying there. I have many close friends from Quito, but I was more betrayed and wounded at the hands of believers there than anywhere I’ve ever been. People who claimed the name of Christ were hateful and nasty to me (and I was hateful and nasty right back.) The missionary community there was a cold, distant, and unforgiving place for a guy who fought hard to avoid plastic shininess. I was lonely. I was depressed. I was shattered, and left alone to cobble together the pieces of who I would be after the smoke cleared and the ashes settled.

I don’t say these things here to get you to sympathize, to feel sorry for me. I say them to illustrate a point. Two points really, I guess. My experience with the Rockies this weekend has reminded me of two truths:

I miss things all the time.

My nephew, bless his heart, doesn’t really feel the awe of the mountains because he was born and raised in their shadow. He’s 17 now, and they have become fixtures for him. They are for him what the rolling, deciduous forests of the Ozarks, the fertile, patchwork plains of the bread basket, and the stark, undulating minimalism of the Flint Hills are for me. They are blind spots, gaping holes in our vision where we are numbed to glory. The poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning famously put it this way:

“Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God,
But only he who sees takes off his shoes”

The X-Files’ Agent Scully said it perhaps even more poignantly. Though known for her skepticism, she said that the idea didn’t so much bother her that God might not be speaking. What made her afraid, she said, was the possibility that God is speaking, and that no one’s listening.

I need to listen harder. I need to see.

I was made to miss things.

Even before the fall, even before the brokenness that mars my spiritual complexion, I was made for more than this. I was created for a purpose that is frustrated and short-circuited at my every turn. There is no amount of beauty, no depth of intimacy, nor even any power of real, Divine connection that will complete me. Not here. Not in the tension between the already and the not yet.

C.S. Lewis (of course) says it better and more succinctly when he says “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.”

The holes in my heart, the vacancy and emptiness I feel, the deep hunger that haunts me will not be met by the ideal relationship. I will not find ultimate satisfaction in the perfect job that will afford me comfort and security. I will never rest my head carefree at night because of the beauty I’ve seen and experienced. (And here’s the controversial part.) Not even any amount of time in prayer, or number of verses memorized, nor long walks with God in the evening, nor right theology, or attending the right kind of church the right number of times a month … none of it will satisfy me.

Only Jesus will, and that face to face. We were created for a relationship that will one day be consummated. Until then, even places like Colorado and Ecuador will break your heart.

He Won’t Be A Means To An End

My last post was mostly written on a Sunday morning. I had made it to worship practice, but quickly realized that the grief, guilt, and deep sadness that I was wrestling with was going to leave me completely incapable of keeping things casual. There was no way I was going to be able to sing a lyric like “Be still, my soul: the hour is hastening on when we will be forever with the Lord. When disappointment, grief, and fear are are gone, sorrow forgot, love’s purest joys restored. Be still, my soul: when change and tears are past, all safe and blessed, we shall meet at last” without completely breaking down. As I’m pretty sure there’s something in the Shorter Catechism about public displays of emotion, I left church and went to the coffee shop. (Sorry if that’s not very Jesusy. It’s where I was at.)

When I finished writing, I got up and stretched my legs. “So, You want to be everything I need,” I said to God. “That sounds pretty great, and right now I’m even feeling like I could believe it enough to trust-fall backwards into Your arms.”

I felt Him smile.

“So,” I said, ruining the moment, “how do I get access to this provision?”

I felt Him just look at me intently with a half-smile, waiting for it to sink in.

“Oooh … I’m still doing it, aren’t I?” I dropped my head.

Then He said this:

“I do not dwell in temples made with hands. I need nothing. Worship is what you owe me, but it doesn’t add to Me.

“Everything that is in the earth and in the heavens, visible and invisible, all things, all powers, all authorities were created by Me and exist for Me.

“I am the beginning and the end. I am before all things, and it’s only through Me that they hold together.

“I give life, breath, and all things to all people. By me rulers reign and decree justice. The hearts of kings are like water in My hand. It is in and through Me that you live, and move, and have your very being.

“I am able to do so far beyond anything it could possibly even occur to you to think to ask of Me.

“I am.

“I will not be a means to any end in your life but Myself, Rick. Anything else would be less than what I have promised you.”

I cried in the coffee shop. No one seemed to mind.

I am beginning to know Him. I am beginning to believe. I am beginning to be slowly persuaded that He is really able to sustain and grow the fledgling faith I have in Him, and that He will continue to sanctify and make me more like His Son. That’s what I want.

I’m trying not to want less by adding more.

Nothing But You

I’m a verbal processor. Frequently things come out of my mouth/fingers when I’m talking/writing to someone that had never occurred to me before. I often find myself listening to things I’m saying for the first time, and thinking “That’s interesting.” One such instance happened recently as I was praying for a friend of mine. In the middle of the prayer, I said this:

“Give him the courage to follow You with no promise but You as reward.”

I remember stopping and lifting my eyes. I stopped and wrote it down, realizing that I’d just prayed something for a brother that I desperately needed for myself. I strongly suspect God was being sneaky.

I am so not there right now. I know that I should be, but I’m not. That’s terrifying.

I am not content to give everything I have to follow Jesus with no guarantee of anything from Him but Jesus Himself. There are so many things I add to my list of requirements.

Friendship/Intimacy. I don’t have her anymore. No one to go home to and tell my day’s stories to. I don’t have anyone to share life with, to share space with. I’m not looking for a lover. My heart belongs to one woman. I just need people I can do life with. I need guys with whom I can wrestle through the difficulty of this season. Guys for whom the demands of career, family, kids, or other life activities hasn’t rendered genuine brotherhood an unrealistic drain of resources. I want to walk closely and intimately with other men who want to push me toward Jesus and want me to do the same. I need that.

Stability/Comfort. I’ve got nothing. I live in the corner of a friend’s basement. I drive a borrowed vehicle. I got fired from my last job because my boss was insane and thought the universe was telling her to protect herself from me. I need a job. But, I’m 44. Could the job be something that might conceivably be in an area of marketable skill for me? Could it be something that could possibly be construed as career potential? Could it be something that would build my portfolio? Something that would grow me as an artist? I feel like that’s all I really have. Do I have to go to work at Starbucks?

Restoration/Respect. I feel shame and guilt everywhere I go. I haven’t tried to hide what I’ve done. I guess it’s good that I don’t really know how to do that. But I feel the looks. It’s probably partly projection, but the behind-the-hand whispers are sometimes almost audible. “Poor Rick … If only he’d been able to resist temptation … He really screwed his life up … He’s so broken and needy … It’s sad, but he has no one to blame but himself … etc.” I feel the judgement. Not the kind that looks like wagged fingers and public condemnation. More the type that comes from withdrawn connections, less frequent phone calls, aborted weekly meeting commitments, and awkward silences. It’s a double edged-sword of shame and frustration. I feel frustrated that I can’t find the help I feel I need, while also feeling intense shame that I even need it in the first place.  Can I ever be respected again? Can I be restored? Can I get back to that place of people looking at me and not pursing their lips and shaking their heads?

God, help me. I don’t value You above all else. I am not content to chase after You and leave You to fill in the blanks on everything else. There is so much I feel like I need that I insist that You bring with You in order for me to sign off on this whole “surrender” thing. I have to know that You’re going to meet my needs in ways that are sustainable and viable for me. I have to know that it’s going to be just a little bit about me. I have to know that You’re not going to lead me into even more uncomfortable waters. God, the level of pain and shame and fear and heartache is already at the point where I don’t know how to bear it. Please tell me You won’t give me more. Please tell me that from here on out, things will get easier. Please.

Even as I write that all out, I strongly suspect that Your Holy Spirit is praying something very different for me. It probably goes more like “Help Rick to see the mind-numbing value of what is being offered to him. Help him to see that when his Maker comes down and says ‘I want to provide personally for everything you will ever need,’ that it means more than any temporary fixes and fleeting hole-filling activities could ever hope to signify. Help Rick to understand that anything that You don’t offer and provide is something that will kill his soul instead of save it. Help him to rest in your ridiculous, nonsensical love for him, and to trust in Your completely sufficient mercy, grace, and provision. Right now, he’s not able to do that. Do it for him.”

Probably You should listen to His prayer instead of mine.

Things I Don’t Believe

I got word a few hours ago that a friend of mine is dead.

I don’t know much more than that. He was an internet buddy, a connection made through a mutual friend. I’ve known him for years. We weren’t close, but we spoke pretty often. He was always an encouragement to me when we did connect. I spoke to him last about a week and a half ago. I was in a pretty dark place. Evidently, so was he. He obliquely mentioned a cancer diagnosis, but when I tried to follow up on it, he deliberately changed the subject and asked how I was doing. I made a mental note to ask about it next time we talked, and proceeded to talk about me. (Those of you who know me won’t find that shocking.)

He struggled with addiction, chronic illness, and depression. He was a broken man who was deeply in love with Jesus. He realized that his only hope, in this life as well as the one to come, lay in God’s ridiculous, senseless love for him. The last time I spoke to him, he laid aside his suffering to try and hold mine for a few minutes. I let him.

I don’t know if he died of cancer, of an overdose, or because he took his own life. I have no idea. I’m not going to try to tell you his story. I’m not qualified. I didn’t know him that well. I’m going to try to tell you why I’m so disgusted with myself right now.

I am growing increasingly repulsed and furious at the idea that you can hold to a belief about God solely in the theoretical abstract, while never really allowing it to make any practical difference in your behavior. I am getting weary of holding up under the weight of a reality characterized by half-measures of commitment to truths about our faith that never seem to create lasting change in the functional outworking of day-to-day life.

I’m weary of people whose compassion for those struggling with habitual sin is not mitigated by the reality that God has forever forgiven their own cosmic treason and made relationship with Him possible through the death of His perfect Son. I’m tired of those who have been at the Prodigal’s welcome home party long enough that they’ve genuinely begun to believe that God looks more favorably on their struggles with pride, dishonesty, and selfishness than He does on more pigpen-smelling struggles like sex, addiction, and alcohol abuse. I’m repulsed by the mentality that greedily sucks in grace and mercy and forgiveness and unwarranted favor and unconditional love and never looks for ways to be a selfless conduit of the same in the lives of people God has so clearly placed in their lives. I’m disgusted by the kind of person who could know deeply the importance of sitting on the ash-heap with someone, yet use the last earthly conversation with a suffering friend talking about their own mess and putting off dealing with someone else’s to a more convenient time.

There’s a phrase for the kind of beliefs that don’t translate into action … they’re called “things I don’t really believe.”

 

Peterson on Snake Oil

“The great danger of Christian discipleship is that we should have two religions: a glorious, biblical Sunday gospel that sets us free from the world, that in the cross and resurrection of Christ makes eternity alive in us, a magnificent gospel of Genesis and Romans and Revelation; and, then, an everyday religion that we make do with during the week between the time of leaving the world and arriving in heaven. We save the Sunday gospel for the big crises of existence. For the mundane trivialities … we use the everyday religion of the Reader’s Digest reprint, advice from a friend, an Ann Landers column, the huckstered wisdom of a talk-show celebrity. We practice patent-medicine religion. We know that God created the universe and has accomplished our eternal salvation. But we can’t believe that he condescends to watch the soap opera of our daily trials and tribulations; so we purchase our own remedies for that. To ask him to deal with what troubles us each day is like asking a famous surgeon to put iodine on a scratch.”

Eugene Peterson, A Long Obedience In The Same Direction

Jesus Wept

Waves of emotion rolled through him, the kind of emotion no man born of woman could have known before. Anger that burned with an undying fire. Sorrow that endlessly ached for the realities of brokenness and darkness. Joy that ever whispered silently of a day when death would die … a day that was coming far sooner than any of the mourners gathered could have known.

He heard the quiet sobbing, the tired cries of grief four days old. He saw them watching him, the silent accusation in their eyes no quieter than the unmistakable point of the words that still hung in the dusty air. “If you had been here … if you had come when we called …”

He turned to look back at Martha, saw the grim resolve in the set of her jaw. She had been steeling herself against the agony for days, but there was still a little hope there. Perhaps senseless hope, but hope nonetheless. He looked back to Mary, met the fierce intensity of her leveled gave with one that spoke a compassion flesh had never felt. Her lip quivered with barely restrained ferocity, love, fear, and pain. His eyes started to fill.

He dropped his gaze. He looked at the dirt at Mary’s feet, dirt she would return to one day. Cursed earth. Earth that had already claimed his friend.

“Where is he?,” he asked her, his soft voice breaking. He started to cry, tears running down his face into his beard.

One of the mourners saw, and turned to her friend. “Look, the Master really loved Lazarus,” she said, following the crowd as they began to shuffle toward the tomb.

It’s my favorite moment in the New Testament. I know it probably ought to be something in Romans. Even if I limit it to the gospels, it probably ought to be the Resurrection or the Ascension. But this is the moment I pick. Jesus, Theanthropos, the God/Man … crying. Why? He knew He was about to rip his friend back from death’s cold grip. Why did He cry?

Was it because he saw and felt the grief of people He loved? Was it because He knew that Lazarus’s resurrection was only a tease, that he would have to suffer that cruel fate again? Was it because he was overcome with anger at sin and death itself?

I don’t know. I’m not sure it’s knowable. But today, this story whispers a new comfort to me.

Jesus, God incarnate, stands in front of a tomb and cries. He walks out of heaven and into the earthy work of art He painted, sits down on the ash heap of our suffering, and He weeps. Yes, He comes to redeem. Yes, He comes to undo sin and death and darkness. Yes, He comes to show us a better way. But let’s not miss that in the process, He stands before us and looks us in the eye as we suffer loss and heartbreak.

What He says to us in that moment perhaps doesn’t speak as eloquently as what He does not say. He doesn’t say:

“Suck it up.”

“This is your cross to bear.”

“You should be over this by now.”

“If you really trusted Me, this would be easier.”

“The consequences of sin suck. Sorry.”

“Isn’t this all a little bit you-centered?”

“Could you try NOT being so broken?”

“Have you tried chamomile tea?”

What He does say is “You’re going to have hard times here, in this world. But I have overcome the world.”

And He weeps.

Near to the Brokenhearted

I’m going to preach to myself a bit. Feel free to listen in.

One of my heroes tweeted this just a few minutes ago.

Tullian Tchividjian Tweet

If Tullian’s isn’t a familiar name to you, I would strongly urge you to get to know him. He’s a successful author and conference speaker. He’s Billy Graham’s grandson and the senior pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church. But he’s not a guy unacquainted with brokenness. He doesn’t have a super glitzy past. He’s been places and done things. It’s because of this that when he speaks to me of God’s “One Way Love” for me — His completely unconditional acceptance that disregards my sin in favor of Christ’s sinlessness credited to my account — I listen more attentively than when I hear similar things from shiny, golden people. (Clicking on the graphic above will take you to a collection of his blogs for The Gospel Coalition.)

The message was one I needed to hear today. That’s a really sanitized way to say it. It hit me like a life-preserver, honestly. In the last week, I’ve almost shut this blog down at least three times. I’m nearly 75% convinced right now that the ideas I write about, while theoretically and biblically sound, are utterly unrealistic in any sort of practical application. I guess I just continue to find far more evidence that it won’t work. I had a 4.5 hour phone conversation this week, one where I really opened up about some of my past and struggles. The unmistakable response was that I should suck it up, keep it to myself, and abandon the idea that I was ever going to find a community to proactively help push me toward Jesus. No one wants to know about deeply dark struggles, Rick. It’s not fair to tell them and place the weight on them of figuring out a response.

Sometimes I get tired of admitting that I’m struggling again. “Again?” Sometimes I get tired of admitting that this is a nearly perpetual struggle for me. I long for a community that walks and wrestles together … really together. I know the guy I had the marathon phone session with isn’t alone. I’m sure I have a lot of friends who wish I would abandon this idea. People for whom it’s awkward and difficult to really reach out and grab hold of someone’s messy hand. Particularly the hand of one who keeps needing it. I know this is hard. I get it.

I know how pathetic this sounds. I probably won’t even re-read it before I hit “publish.” It makes me sound weak, helpless, and needy. In short, it makes me sound like all the things I am. That’s why I almost shut down the blog. I’m tired of looking like what I am. I’m tired of not being able to pretend I’m “shiny.”

Okay, enough of that. Here’s the preaching.

Tozer has a quote I found recently that I also grabbed hold of like a drowning man. It says “It is doubtful whether God can bless a man greatly until he has hurt him deeply.” Here’s the quote in context:

The flaming desire to be rid of every unholy thing and to put on the likeness of Christ at any cost is not often found among us. We expect to enter the everlasting kingdom of our Father and to sit down around the table with sages, saints and martyrs; and through the grace of God, maybe we shall; yes maybe we shall. But for the most of us it could prove at first an embarrassing experience. Ours might be the silence of the untried soldier in the presence of the battle-hardened heroes who have fought the fight and won the victory and who have scars to prove that they were present when the battle was joined. Thus, it is necessary for God to use suffering in his holy work of preparing his saints, it is doubtful whether God can bless a man greatly until he has hurt him deeply.

A.W. Tozer, The Root of the Righteous

God, I hope that’s what’s happening. I hope You’re doing all of this for some reason. I’m so tired of hurting.

What if it’s just blind, legalistic consequences of sin? What if it’s just brokenness for the sake of brokenness? I’m not sure I can face the long view with that sort of prognosis. Yeah, we all want to gently speak to the righteous sufferer … “Hey, God uses all things to work out His eternal glory and your eternal good.” But what about the sinner? What about the guy who’s suffering because of his actions? What about the guy that wouldn’t be where he was if he hadn’t done bad things? What do we say to him?

I’m just going to end by saying these things to him (me), and continue to hold out hope that God was talking about him (me) when He said them.

 

For he will deliver the needy when he cries for help,
The afflicted also, and him who has no helper.
He will have compassion on the poor and needy,
And the lives of the needy he will save.

Psalm 72:12-13

 

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For just as the sufferings of Christ are ours in abundance, so also our comfort is abundant through Christ.

II Corinthians 1:3-5

 

After you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself perfect, confirm, strengthen and establish you.

I Peter 5:10

 

The Lord sustains all who fall
And raises up all who are bowed down.
The eyes of all look to You,
And You give them their food in due time.
You open Your hand
And satisfy the desire of every living thing.
The Lord is righteous in all His ways
And kind in all His deeds.
The Lord is near to all who call upon Him,
To all who call upon Him in truth.
He will fulfill the desire of those who fear Him;
He will also hear their cry and will save them.

Psalm 145:14-19

 

Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it to life eternal. If anyone serves Me, he must follow Me; and where I am, there My servant will be also; if anyone serves Me, the Father will honor him.

John 12:24-26

 

The Lord is near to the brokenhearted
And saves those who are crushed in spirit.

Psalm 34:18

Josh Garrells on Suffering and Community

Sometimes, on days where I’m feeling pretty lonely, one of my heroes shows up and tells me I’m not crazy. It helps a bit. It actually helps a whole lot.

Josh Garrells on Suffering and Community

Clicking the picture will take you to an article on the Intervarsity Christian Fellowship website. Scroll down to the second video. It’s 4:40 long. It’s beautiful.

 

A Conspiracy of Plasticity

I forget where I first read the quote that total depravity is the only empirically demonstrable Calvinistic doctrine. It’s a cute statement, but behind the joke of it, there’s a cringe and a wince.

The truth about ourselves is unavoidable. We are confronted with its proofs every day, even days we stay home in our pajamas and don’t interact with others. We all know the problem, believer and non-believer alike. We all know that:

  1. We are broken and sinful
  2. It is shameful and embarrassing
  3. We can’t do anything about it on our own

When faced with a dilemma of that magnitude, we all do what it is our nature to do. We hide, direct attention elsewhere, and look for loopholes.

It doesn’t work, it never does. The problem affects every part of everything we do. Even the best efforts of the most self-disciplined of us won’t help us bite the bullet and grind it out. We are hopelessly broken and we all prove it to each other every time we turn around.

So, what do we do?

The gospel offers us one option. We can be honest, stop hiding and pretending, and openly own our brokenness. We can bring it to the foot of the cross and exchange it for perfect, spotless righteousness lived on our behalf. But in doing so, we know that we lose the right to define ourselves forever. In coming to Him for help, we’re acknowledging our Maker’s divine right to fix us in a manner of His choosing. So, uh … absolutely not! Right? The fear that God will mess with our priorities and idols and deepest desires is too much. Honestly, I don’t think even the majority of believers ever really do that.

We do the other thing. We all agree to adjust the standard to which we can’t possibly measure up. We come to a silent consensus to lower the bar enough that we can all jump over. We cooperate in a conspiracy of plasticity, an agreement to not talk about the elephant in the corner, and we live our lives with fake smiles plastered across our faces. We avoid looking too long into another’s eyes. We decide that questions like “how are you?” are social constructs and not really requests for information at all. We pick and choose ideas that make us feel connected to a higher reality, ideas like “judge not” and “the greatest of these is love,” and we build an ethical hierarchy around them that has no root in anything but the way we selfishly want to be respected and loved.

The church isn’t exempt.We collectively agree that phrases like “bear one another’s burdens” and “love like Jesus loved you” and “forgive as you have been forgiven” and “be merciful as your Father in heaven is merciful” are hyperbole and not realistic goals to which we should be held accountable to aspire. “Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly before God” gets so much added to it, just so we can feel like we’ve at least got part of the checklist covered. We hide the shortcomings of our horizontal love behind a manufactured zeal for “loftier” ideals like Calvinism, Presbyterianism, Eucharist doctrine, or cessationism (those are some of the ones my circles are super proud of … yours might differ). We throw ourselves into what really amounts to a second job, a construct where we do our best to appear to be something we know we’re not. Those of us that are really good Christians and respectable members of the community make sure that we serve on pulpit committees, sign up for set-up crews, show up for every youth group function, and sing up front on Sundays. We position ourselves where people will see the best of us, because success ultimately comes down to being defined as shallowly as it is in our first job: going through the right motions in the right way, and keeping the right people happy with us.

Before we know it, we’ve become a social club of people completely happy to keep gently adjusting the wool over one another’s eyes, listening to Oprahesque rehash with itching ears. We’re happy sleep-walking because it’s been years since we’ve really demanded anything else from one another.

The gospel will shatter all of that, in exhilarating and terrifying ways. Which is why we continue to be very, very careful to make sure that the gospel stays theoretical.

I Don’t Get Mercy

I’m having trouble writing this. This is the fourth reboot of this post, and that’s just not something I usually do. I’m starting to learn more about my blind spots, and I’m beginning to think my struggles with this topic are because I really kinda don’t want to tell you how much I don’t understand this grace stuff.

Let’s get the shiny, positive stuff out of the way first and then I’ll dive into how much I suck at this. I’ve got a couple of stories to share.

The first is from C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce. For those of you unfamiliar with the novel, it’s told from the viewpoint of a narrator who finds himself in a “grey town,” a dim and dark place, and takes a bus trip to another place that ends up being the outskirts of heaven.

Once they arrive at their destination, the narrator and his fellow travelers realize that they are ghosts and are unable to even walk on the grass of this new place, as it is so “solid” that it hurts their insubstantial bodies. Even leaves are far too heavy for them to lift. Bright and shining resident spirits come to meet the ghosts and promise to help them on the journey deeper into heaven. They tell them that they will become more solid as they journey toward the mountains and sunrise. Most of the ghosts find excuses to not take the journey, and return to the town.

One such ghost is met by a spirit that he had known in life. The spirit had worked for him and had actually murdered a friend of the ghost’s. The ghost was not pleased to see that the spirit sent to assist him was one he considered his moral inferior. The wispy ghost angrily tells his helper that he won’t appeal to charity in order to be escorted into heaven by a murderer.

“If they choose to let in a bloody murderer all because he makes a poor mouth at the last moment, that’s their lookout. But I don’t see myself going in the same boat with you, see? Why should I? I don’t want charity. I’m a decent man and if I had my rights I’d have been here long ago and you can tell them I said so.”

The other shook his head. “You can never do it like that,” he said. “Your feet will never grow hard enough to walk on our grass that way. You’d be tired out before we got to the mountains. And it isn’t exactly true, you know.” Mirth danced in his eyes as he said it.

“What isn’t true?” asked the Ghost sulkily.

“You weren’t a decent man and you didn’t do your best. We none of us were and we none of us did. Lord bless you, it doesn’t matter. There is no need to go into it all now.”

“You!” gasped the Ghost. “You have the face to tell me I wasn’t a decent chap?”

“Of course. Must I go into all that? I will tell you one thing to begin with. Murdering old Jack wasn’t the worst thing I did. That was the work of a moment and I was half mad when I did it. But I murdered you in my heart, deliberately, for years. I used to lie awake at nights thinking what I’d do to you if ever I got the chance.”

In the end, the ghost walks away grumbling and whimpering across the piercing grass. Unable to accept that none of what he thought were his greatest accomplishments were worth anything in this new reality, and that all the things he thought were the worst in others really weren’t, he returns to the grey town. He chooses hell over heaven.

The part that wedges the most hurt into my heart is that line by the shining spirit of the former murderer “It isn’t exactly true, you know … You weren’t a decent man and you didn’t do your best. We none of us were and we none of us did.” 

The second story I want to share is one that Jesus told. He had a point in telling it. He always did. Here He is dealing with a spectacularly “Peter-esque” question once again:

Peter came and said to Him, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” 

Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.

“For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he had begun to settle them, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. But since he did not have the means to repay, his lord commanded him to be sold, along with his wife and children and all that he had, and repayment to be made. 

“So the slave fell to the ground and prostrated himself before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me and I will repay you everything.’ And the lord of that slave felt compassion and released him and forgave him the debt. 

“But that slave went out and found one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and he seized him and began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay back what you owe.’  So his fellow slave fell to the ground and began to plead with him, saying, ‘Have patience with me and I will repay you.’ But he was unwilling and went and threw him in prison until he should pay back what was owed. 

“So when his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were deeply grieved and came and reported to their lord all that had happened. Then summoning him, his lord said to him, ‘You wicked slave, I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow slave, in the same way that I had mercy on you?’ And his lord, moved with anger, handed him over to the torturers until he should repay all that was owed him. 

“My heavenly Father will also do the same to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart.”

Matthew 18:21-35 (NASB)

I often wonder how many times Jesus had to struggle to avoid rolling His eyes at Peter. Here we have him asking the Son of God, “Hey, how many times do I have to forgive my brother? … like, maybe seven times? Is seven good? That’s a good, biblical number, right? Let’s say seven!”

Jesus, of course, turns conventional wisdom on its ear. He takes the good, biblical number and multiplies it by another good, biblical number, arriving at what everyone there would have understood as a large, symbolically significant number. It wasn’t likely that Peter was thinking “Crap! That’s 483 more times.” But just in case he was, Jesus tells a story, and it’s a doozy

It’s easy for me to gloss over some of the crucial elements of this familiar tale. I sometimes ignore numbers (particularly when they serve to illustrate a point I find uncomfortable). In this story the numbers are really important. Talents and denarii aren’t common units of measure for me, so I’m going to translate. Let’s assume for the sake of our story, that both slaves in question make the same wage. Let’s further assume that they make the equivalent of the U.S. median income, which last year was just over $51,000.

A denarius, which was a day’s wage, would then be somewhere in the neighborhood of $195. Slave #2 owed Slave #1 one hundred denarii, which would come out pretty close to $20,000. That’s not a small amount. It’s close to half a year’s wages. It’s hard to fault Slave #1 for wanting his 20 grand back … at least until we do the math on his debt.

Matthew tells us that Slave #1 owed the king 10,000 talents. My study bible tells me that a talent would have been equal to more than fifteen years of the slave’s wages. If we do the math with $51K as our base, we come up with a ridiculously large number. 10,000 x 15 (rounded down for ease of calculation) x $51,000 = $7,650,000,000. That’s $7.65 BILLION dollars … billion with a “B.”

Slave #1 was going after Slave #2 for .00026 % of the debt he’d just been forgiven. And he wasn’t just saying, “Hey, when you get around to it. No rush.” There was choking involved.

I employ lots of tactics to avoid the clear lesson of the parable. I identify with the wrong character. Some days I choose the king (“If I am kind to someone, that person ought to be kind to others”). Some days I choose Slave #2 (“That person who won’t forgive me should do so because they owe God more than I owe them”). I want to choose the part in the drama that’s easiest on me, but in doing so I miss the point.

When I’m honest with myself, I think the lesson Jesus is trying to teach Peter (and me) is this:

I cannot hold another image-bearer of God to a legal standard to which I will not submit myself.

I cannot appeal to God for grace and mercy for myself that I will not also extend to my fellow image-bearers.

I do not get to hold someone else to the requirements of the Law unless I am also willing to submit myself to them. If I am going to say that a friend who has hurt me must be held accountable for his actions, then I must also be held accountable for my shortcomings. There is no karma. There is no scales to measure good against bad and plot us out on some divine acceptability chart. We either get grace or we get the law. There is nothing between them. If I say that I want justice for someone else, I am saying that I want justice for myself. (And I don’t. I really, really don’t.) If I beg for mercy and grace for myself, then I am asking for mercy and grace for you. It’s a package deal. God may get to decide who gets mercy and who gets justice, but I don’t.

It is cosmically nonsensical for me to stand before the King of the Universe and beg for His mercy for what I know that I owe, and then demand that He hold the person who slighted me accountable for his failures. But I do it every day.

When I’m even more honest with myself, I will admit that the moment I start to really understand what Jesus means, I load the cannons with lots of truthy devastation and take aim at anyone but myself. Let me give you a real-life, excruciatingly painful example.

By now, anyone reading this will know that I’m divorced. Lots of you probably want me to move on and stop writing about it. Not sure what to say to that except “Sorry.” The divorce has been the most painful thing I have ever navigated, and it still hurts like hell every day. It’s far from over. One of the things that keeps it so fresh and eviscerating is this ongoing mental game that Satan plays in my head. When God shows me something like the powerful truth in bold above, the sad reality is that the first person I aim it at is the woman I love the most on the planet.

“God, she should have done this/that differently! She shouldn’t have behaved this/that way! She started this whole thing when she hurt me in this/that manner! Your word clearly states that there are things she should have done that she didn’t, and things that she shouldn’t have done that she did! She appeals to grace and mercy to cover her faults and demands the letter of the law for mine! I had 174 forgivings to go! She’s wrong!”

I won’t embarrass myself by telling you how often God and I have this very conversation. I get so angry. I’m spitting and crying and shouting, and I’m indignant and my chest is puffed out and I’m demanding justice from my Maker. And the irony of the situation always initially passes right over my head.

This is a woman that I loved and failed. I didn’t lead her well. I didn’t serve her in a Christ-like manner. I backed down from confrontation out of fear of upsetting the delicate balance of uneasy truce. I willfully allowed myself to be deceived into believing that a lack of conflict was equivalent to marital health. I was weak and fearful. I was selfish and dismissive of her. Ultimately, I gave in to depression, grief, and mental anguish and chose to self-medicate by being unfaithful to her.

That’s the truth. That’s who I am. That’s what I’ve done. That’s the moral platform I bring to the table as I puff my chest out at God and make demands of Him. There’s not a scales that exists that could level the sin I’ve committed against this woman I adore with the petty crimes she’s committed against me. But I keep trying.

I remember another offense, some trifling thing she did. Some other way in which I was betrayed, in which she failed me. I dig through my memory on my hands and knees and when I stumble upon one, I leap to my feet shouting with self-satisfied glee. I run to the scales and drop the coin onto her side.”See! She WAS wrong! She DID sin!” I wait for a moment to see if the scales will tilt, and then return to my search.

I’ve gotten good at even finding farthings of damnation in scripture. I know just where to go to appeal to the law and I wield it like a brutal hammer, demanding my rights, demanding what is just. And all the while, I’m standing in a giant blind spot surrounded by all my own shortcomings. I cut myself slack I wouldn’t dream of extending to her. All while lobbing flaming chunks of law and requirement at her that I would never even consider trying to fulfill myself.

It’s a ridiculous cycle that I’ve repeated many, many times in the last year and a half. And I will continue to go through the stupid, pointless motions of it until I learn the truth. Here is the truth:

The key to seeing my value and righteousness has nothing to do with comparing my sin toward my ex-wife with her sin toward me. It has everything to do with comparing her sin toward me with my sin toward God.

In the story Jesus told, I’m not the king. I’m not Slave #2. I’m Slave #1. I owe $7.65 billion and I’m trifling about your outstanding drink tab. I’ve committed cosmic treason, and I’m mad at you because you don’t love me in the way I feel I deserve. I’m the bad guy in the story, and I know it.

I don’t get grace and mercy. I’ve received it, but I don’t “get it.” The extent to which I get it is the extent to which I will extend it.

 

Robert Capon on House Parties

“Listen! I am standing at the door and knocking! If anyone hears my voice and opens the door I will come into his home and have supper (deípnon) with him, and he with me.”

I choose this passage not because I intend to make a full commentary on the letters that Jesus, in a vision, told John the Divine to write to the seven churches in Asia but because it enables me to ring some changes on the image I just introduced of the house set in illusory darkness. In those early sections of Revelation, Jesus speaks to John in a vision of light: he is holding seven stars in his right hand and he is walking in the midst of seven golden lampstands. So much for the outer darkness: even as he stands out there on the world’s front step and knocks—even there, outside the door of the swept and ordered house (Lk, 11:25) he has provided for us in his death and resurrection, there is light; even those of us who perversely choose to love the darkness are standing in the Light. And so much for the threat of the seven devils worse than our first uncleanness (Lk 11:26) whom we might possibly invite in to make that house dark again: the judge of the world is on the doorstep and there isn’t room for a single one of them.

For the judge who stands there is not alone. There is a crowd with him, and it isn’t the cops. It is a party. It is all the guest at the Supper (deípnon) of the Lamb—plus the chefs and the caterer’s crew and the musicians and the stars of the evening—all making an eternal racket, all pleading to bring the party into the house. And they have found our address not because they looked it up in the “books that were opened” at the last judgment before the great white throne (Rev. 20:12)—not because they examined our records and found us socially acceptable—but only because he showed them our names in the “other book that was opened” (Rev. 20:12, again): the Lamb’s book of life.

Do you see? If he had looked us up in those books, we would all have been judged according to our works (Rev. 20:12, still), and the eternal party would never even have come down our street. But because he only looked us up in the book—because he came to save and not to judge, because in the Lamb’s book we are all okay, all clothed with his righteousness, all drawn infallibly to himself by his being lifted up in death and resurrection—because of that only because of that, he finds the door of every last one of us and lands the party on our porch. All we have to do is say yes to him and open the door. We do not have to earn the party; we already have the party. We do not have to understand the party, or conjure up good feelings about the party; we have only to enjoy the party. Everything else: the earning, the deserving, the knowing, the feeling—our records, our sins, even our sacred guilt—is irrelevant. “No man,” Luther said, “can know or feel he is saved; he can only believe it.” And he can only believe it because there is nothing left for him to do but believe it. It is already here. There is therefore now no condemnation. The Light has come into the world.

Even at the judgment, therefore, the gracious Light—the Phōs hilarón—is still the only game in town. When the Lamb stands at the door and knocks, only an inveterate nonsport would say, “Darkness, anyone?”

The Parables of Judgment, Robert Farrar Capon

I Make Bad (Sinful) Choices

A friend called me out on something this morning.

The last few days, I’ve written a couple of blog posts driven by my processing of the horrific death of precious little Hailey Owens. My friend said that he was pretty sure that Jesus wouldn’t have leveraged the emotional capital of a still grieving family in order to provide flannelgraph for His campaign. My friend is right. I’ve deleted the posts.

I’m sorry. I’ve sinned grievously. I’ve been thoughtless and cruel. It’s not about the blog, but I lost one reader whom I truly love over this. That’s one too many to be driven away by my cavalier handling of the sacred.

I was wrong. Will you please forgive me? I always welcome (and desperately need) challenges to my blind spots.

Set Me As A Seal Upon Your Heart

There’s no getting around the fact that Valentine’s Day is brutally hard for me. I’m not alone in that. I know folk who are celebrating their first February 14 after burying their lover. There are others who long for restoration, healing, and forgiveness in a broken relationship. Still others live lonely lives the other 364 days a year, only to have “Singleness Awareness Day” rub salt in the rawness of a wound that never really heals.

For all of us for whom this is not a super fluffy day filled with pink and red and chocolate, I’m afraid I don’t have any magic words. It sucks. It’s hard and it’s painful. Sin and brokenness are a blight that wreaks havoc and lays waste throughout the landscape of human emotions. We weren’t made for loneliness, that’s why it hurts so bad.

Know this, though. Know what I was reminded of early this morning. Know that in the middle of your pain, you are loved with an everlasting love by your Father, Who cannot ever change. Even the greatest of earthly loves that are being toasted today with cheap champagne, ten-times-the-price roses, tooth-breakingly hard candy hearts, and overcrowded restaurants … they will one day come to an end. Death will claim it all.

But not the love you woke up resting in this morning. Not the love that will surround, embrace, and sustain you throughout this day. Not the love that will fold you in His arms as you lay your head to your pillow tonight. It will go on and on and on, world without end, forever and ever and ever and ever and ever. The Lover of your soul is relentlessly, head over heels in love with you, and will never stop.

Iron Sharpens Iron

… I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you — that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine.

Romans 1:11-12

I love this explicit layout of what Proverbs treats poetically (27:17 Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another.)

Paul seems to stop here and clarify. I could give you something … that is, we could give each other something. I want to be encouraged by you and I want you to be encouraged by me.

In I Thessalonians, Paul says to “encourage one another and build one another up.” The picture of the body from I Corinthians 12 takes on a practical outworking. We are supposed to strengthen, encourage one another, and push one another toward Jesus.

Paul says in Ephesians 4:11-16 that our goal should be to “attain unity of the faith and the knowledge of the Son of God” so that we won’t be swayed by “every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes”, but “speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” who “makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.”

One of our privileges and responsibilities as believers is to act as supports for each other, building one another up in love, pushing each other toward Jesus in such a way that it produces spiritual growth.

So incredibly thankful for the many friends I have who take that privilege and responsibility very seriously.

Originally posted to my Facebook page, September 1, 2012

Three Simple Steps to Loving Better

Love. Mercy. Forgiveness.

I believe these are the keys to accurately translating the realities of the vertical gospel (our relationship with Christ) into horizontal realities and implications for our relationships with others. I believe these three things are the building blocks for living out the gospel horizontally.

The three principles show up all over scripture, but here are perhaps their most specific and clear articulations:

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.

John 13:34-35 (ESV) 

Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.

Luke 6:36 (ESV) 

Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.

Colossians 3:12-13 (ESV)

You’ll notice something really disconcerting about all three of these commands. They each go right to the top when establishing the standard required for their satisfaction. “Love … as I have loved you,” “Be merciful … as your Father is merciful,” “[forgive]as the Lord has forgiven you”; there isn’t much room left for interpreting these as half-hearted suggestions for how to maybe get along better should the fancy strike us to put forth an effort in that direction. No these are clearly commandments. Jesus explicitly says so in John, which really encapsulates the other two. It is impossible to love as Christ loved us without extending divine mercy and forgiveness.

Now, let’s step back from the headiness of this for a moment and be real. This is the checklist of all checklists, isn’t it? If there’s ever been an unreachable standard of behavior laid down, it’s this one. Love you like Jesus loves me? Let’s just look at that. How does Jesus love me?

He loves me completely unconditionally. There is nothing that I can do or fail to do that will make His love for me increase or decrease one iota. My relationship with Him is not a transaction in any way. He sovereignly chose to love me, pay off my debts, purchase for me the right of sonship, and it had nothing to do with anything I had ever done or would ever be able to do. He loves me because he loves me.

He loves me exhaustively. He knows me way better than any of you know me. I can almost guarantee that a lot of things hiding in my basement would make the vast majority of the people who love me seriously question whether there were better people to spend their love on. He knows me completely, through and through. He knows me better than I know myself. He knows the things I think and say and do when no one is watching. He knows the things I say in traffic. He knows even all the ways I blindly sin against Him every day. He loves me in spite of me. He loves me because of who He says I am.

He loves me eternally. There will never come a day where His love for me will waver. He has loved me with an everlasting love, and He cannot change. His love will not wax or wane. It will not grow cold. It will burn for me with an undying flame, forever, eternally, world without end.

That’s just love. Haven’t even touched mercy and forgiveness yet. Love as Jesus has loved me, huh? There are a lot of you out there that I love a lot. Some of you have wound yourselves into places in my heart that I don’t really understand. I know that my Mom and Dad are reading this. There probably aren’t any people on the planet I love more than I love my parents. I have a lot of folk that I love a whole lot. But allow me to let you down as easily as I know how. I don’t love any of you like what’s laid out in the three previous paragraphs. I don’t love any of you even remotely like Jesus loves me. I don’t even know what that means! Even thinking about setting that as a goal for loving others is exhausting. I wouldn’t know where to start!

One of the things that I’m learning to do with scripture is to look beyond the obvious. On the surface this looks like a checklist. A lot of the things that Jesus said and a lot of the things that Paul said tend to look like checklists. Particularly in the New Testament, though, we have to realize that checklists are presented to us for reasons other than providing for us a way to become pleasing to God. If Jesus’s message was anything, it was that He was here because the Law (The Checklist) could never have saved us. If Paul’s teaching said anything, it said that a reliance on the Law negated and insulted the cross. The Law isn’t God’s final word, Grace is. So, if these passages aren’t giving us three simple steps to loving better, then what are they saying?

I think that what God is saying to us about relationships with the love/mercy/forgiveness thing is that there’s a better way to love, and that it involves surrender. I think He knows that we’re accountants by nature, that our hearts run to bookkeeping. I think that a big part of what scripture is telling us here is that we can put down our ledger books and calculators. It’s saying that in the same way that the cross tells us that we can stop our futile efforts to earn our way into heaven and God’s good graces, we can also lay down our campaign to zero out the balance sheets of our relationships. As one of my favorite theologians (Bono, of U2) is wont to say, grace always wins out over karma. We can put down our rule books, our long lists of expectations, and our defenses. We can drop all that we’ve tried to manage in a tit-for-tat/transaction-based way of looking at others. And we can step blindly into a radical experimentation with what nonsensical levels of love, mercy and forgiveness could look like between two fallen image bearers of the most high God.

So, here’s my challenge to myself. Feel free to listen in.

Try it. With no regard for whether the people God has put in your life have earned your love … love anyway. Don’t worry about whether or not they respond like you’d like them to. Just love. Love recklessly. Love indiscriminately. Love selflessly and trust God to protect your heart.

Render mercy with wild abandon. Don’t think about it, just do it. Don’t make a T-chart and consider the pros and cons. Be merciful. Don’t do it because you’re trying to “karma” out your account with God, you don’t have enough friends for that. Just render mercy.

Forgive mindlessly. Choose to blindly lay your right to hold people to account for their wrongs at the foot of the cross and leave it there. Give up. Stop keeping records. It’s exhausting. Just quit. Lay it down. It was never yours to begin with. The same blood that covers your sin covers theirs. Just forgive.

Know that you’re going to suck at it. Know that the cross covers how much you suck at it.

Get up tomorrow and try it again.

Repeat.

In His Love He Will Be Silent

There are a few of my very closest friends out there who are suffering this morning, staggering under the weight of burdens that seem unfairly disproportionate to their abilities to cope. My heart is breaking with and for them. I don’t know what to do. I can call, do lunch, and sit on the ash heap when I’m allowed to. I can love, and intercede, and cry my tears of frustration out to my Father. But the unfathomable and unbearable heartache remains. The bent backs and slumped shoulders, the swollen eyes and gut-punch sorrow isn’t going away.

As I was praying this morning, this verse jumped in my head. It had been a while since I’d read it, so I looked it up. This has long been one of Oak Hills’ go-to verses.

The Lord your God is in your midst,
    a mighty one who will save;
he will rejoice over you with gladness;
    he will quiet you by his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing.

 I will gather those of you who mourn for the festival,
   so that you will no longer suffer reproach.

 Behold, at that time I will deal
   with all your oppressors.
And I will save the lame
    and gather the outcast,
and I will change their shame into praise
    and renown in all the earth.

Zephaniah 3:17-19 (ESV)

It gave me hope today, a hope that I will hold onto for my friends who can’t feel it now. It’s okay that they can’t. That’s part of what taking little pieces of the daily manna God is giving me and throwing it into the hole in my brother’s heart means. I can believe it for you right now.

He is with you. In the middle of the darkness, He is with you. He is able and willing to save you. But He will not do so out of a sense of duty or obligation. He will do so with rejoicing and with love. He will be ecstatic, express jubilation, be rapturously thrilled about the opportunity to rescue His beloved. He will sing over you, and He will do so loudly. I thought immediately of the Father in the story of the Prodigal, who ran down the road in such an undignified manner, driven beyond thoughts of propriety by His love for His cherished son.

He will gather those who mourn for a party. He will take away your shame and reproach. He will deal with the unfairness of life, the brokenness. He will bring the lame, the hurting, the outcast, and the chronic failure into an embrace that will never end, and He will turn your shame into praise and renown. He will do this.

There’s one line in there that’s always so comforting. “He will quiet you by His love.” I always get this sense of God listening to my protests about how bad I am and how much I don’t deserve to be His son, and how He should really just let me sleep in the bunk house with the servants, and then interrupting me and saying “Shhh.” Then I feel the ring slipped on my finger, and his robe around my shoulders. It speaks of acceptance and love that I can’t understand.

But this morning, I saw something that took that line to a whole new level for me. The quiet comfort of my understanding of it is there, but the real language used takes it much farther. Here’s how the Amplified Bible renders it: He will rest [in silent satisfaction] and in His love He will be silent and make no mention [of past sins, or even recall them].

I started to cry. This is more than just emotional and hyper-spiritualized nonsense. This is more than just “It’s okay. Everything’s going to be all right.” It’s more than a band-aid for a grieving heart.

This is the gospel in the Old Testament, saying that God will rest in silent, insistent, burning love for you, satisfied, accepting you, and will not even remember your sin as He takes a deep, divine breath to sing loudly about you, His beloved child.

I pray that gives you rest like it did me this morning.

Embracing Loneliness

Brennan Manning said this about Rich Mullins:

There’s a scene in Thornton Wilder’s play “The Angel that Troubled the Waters” which to me really captures the essence of the life and the spirituality of Rich Mullins.

The scene is a doctor comes to the pool everyday wanting to be healed of his melancholy and his gloom and his sadness. Finally the angel appears. The doctor, he’s a medical doctor, goes to step into the water. The angel blocks his entrance and says, “No, step back, the healing is not for you.” The doctor pleads, “But I’ve got to get into the water. I can’t live this way.” The angel says, “No, this moment is not for you.” And he says, “But how can I live this way?”

The angel says to him, “Doctor, without your wounds where would your power be? It is your melancholy that makes your low voice tremble into the hearts of men and women. The very angels themselves cannot persuade the wretched and blundering children of this earth as can one human being broken on the wheels of living. In love’s service, only wounded soldiers can serve.”

And to me the theme of that story is the theme to Rich Mullins’ life. All grace, all light, all truth, all power are communicated though the vulnerability, the brokenness, the utter honesty of men and women who have been shipwrecked, heartbroken, broken on the wheels of living. In love’s service, only wounded soldiers can serve.

A friend of Rich’s said this:

Almost all of his pain revolved around his immense loneliness and his need to feel loved. As much as we loved him, we could never fill that void. I learned from him that there is within us all, if we have the guts to admit it, a terrible void created by our loneliness for God that can never be fully satisfied in this life.

Rich himself said this:

I think that part of being human is being alone. And being lonely. I think one of the stresses on a lot of our friendships is that we require the people we love to take away that loneliness. And they really can’t. And so, when we still feel lonely, even in the company of people we love, we become angry with them because they don’t do what we think they’re supposed to. Which is really something they can’t do for us.

These quotes and ideas have been rolling around in my head for the last few days. Anyone who’s been following along knows that the last couple of weeks haven’t been exactly peachy. Discomfort has been pretty commonplace. When I’m honest, most of that discomfort takes the form of loneliness for me.

It was the Mullins quote in my last post on the pain of being loved by God that sent me looking for other thoughts of his on the discipline of pursuing God through the pain. I remembered Lewis’s statement that “If you find yourself with a desire that no experience in this world can satisfy, then the most probable explanation is that you were made for another world.” I remembered comments by those close to both Manning and Henri Nouwen that spoke of their struggles with feeling deep loneliness.

I found this Nouwen quote:

The Christian way of life does not take away our loneliness; it protects and cherishes it as a precious gift. Sometimes it seems as if we do everything possible to avoid the painful confrontation with our basic human loneliness, and allow ourselves to be trapped by false gods promising immediate satisfaction and quick relief… The awareness of loneliness might be a gift we must protect and guard, because our loneliness reveals to us an inner emptiness that can be destructive when misunderstood, but filled with promise for him who can tolerate its sweet pain.

I think one of the big things that’s dying a slow and painful (and noisy) death in me through the process in which I find myself is the idea that I’m going to find ultimate fulfillment on this side of heaven. I won’t. I just won’t.

I have that experience. I think I feel the loneliness my heroes talked about. Not that I’ve even remotely gotten to Lewisian/Nouwenian/Mullinsian levels, but I feel that emptiness. I think that it’s human nature, but mine in particular, to try to fill those unfillable holes with something … with anything, really. Sex, money, intimacy, friendships, drugs, alcohol, ministry, even ideas about God … all of them are things we try to shove into that tiny abyss that will always cry out for more because it is not shaped to be fillable by anything but Jesus, and that in glory eternal.

So, in the meantime there’s always this part of my heart that will cry out for filling. It’s not going to go away, and it’s not going to be satisfied. It’s not that I should ignore it, set it aside and just wait for heaven. I think in a very real way, this is what it means to be made in God’s image.

This is a deep need that I am called to share with others. I guess I believe that what we’re really called to do in each other’s lives is to break off pieces of God’s provision for us and drop them into the needfulness in our brother’s hearts. It will never fill it. But we’re called to the futile endeavor anyway.

At the same time, I am beginning to understand how ridiculous, unfair, and cruel it would be to both members of a friendship to ever think of the other as capable of meeting that need. In a very real sense, it’s not even fair of me to think my “through a glass darkly” relationship with Jesus will meet that need.

I don’t wanna be that guy that says that unless yer suffering, it’s not Jesus. But, well … there’s part of this that I think will always hurt … until I finally feel His physical arms enfold me in a embrace that will never end. I think that’s supposed to be the only thing that will stop the hurt.

I think that letting yourself acknowledge and feel that loneliness and pain might be one of the purest forms of worship.

A Prayer for Getting Out of Bed

God, I dreamed about her again last night.

She was so beautiful, trapped in my memory in incorruptible perfection. Her pixie face, her laugh, the hand gestures, the little smile wrinkles that have always been there at the corners of her eyes, her neck — God, she had the most glorious neck. It’s all these little things, these recollections and broken trinkets of our life together … like that little leather box she has with all the coins in it from all the places she’s been … I have these mementos. On mornings like this, I drag them out and endure the agony of running my fingers through them. Perhaps I shouldn’t, but I’m still crazy in love with her. I’m hopelessly in love with her, like a teenage boy with his heart wrapped tight around his first true love. I am endlessly in love with her, or at least with the frozen snapshot of her in my mind. I want so badly to touch her. I remember the last time I held her, there in the mediator’s office. She was so cold. so stiff, so determined in her anger to cut herself off from the possibility of feeling any future pain from me. I will always remember how her hair smelled that day.

I wish I could forget. I wish You could keep me from dreaming about her. That would be great. I wish my heart toward her could grow cold.

I need a job, God.

I overdrew my bank account yesterday. I got a check in, but not in time. Overdraft fees are an excruciating little garnish to the pain of being poor. I’ve only got a couple hundred dollars left. I’m down to eating one meal a day, trying to make it something as nutritious (while still cheap) as possible. I’ve quit going to the gym. I can’t keep training if I’m not eating. I can’t go to jujitsu if I’m not eating. I know that’ll make me sick quick. I’m not sure what I’m going to do.

You said You’d provide for my needs. I need.

The van I’m driving? … the one that’s not mine, that’s borrowed, that I’ve driven for going on two years now? It’s not acting great. Definitely not bad for 207,000 miles, but 8° mornings are taking their toll. Every time I put in another application/resume, I wonder what will happen if they do call and I can’t get to the interview. A guy honked at me the other night as I was trying to baby it through an intersection. I think he thought I was just driving super slow to annoy him. As I backfired and shuddered my way through the green light, it didn’t make me feel particularly manly that I kinda started to cry.

I don’t understand what You’re doing. I mean I get what You’re doing, I just don’t get why I can’t be like everyone else. You call us all to surrender, right? You call all of us to throw off everything that might tie us down, every crutch we might lean on instead of You? I’m not special. Everyone gets that call. How come others get to hear that call from their office at their job, and ponder it while driving home in their own cars, to their own house with their own yard and picket fence. How come they get to thank You for Your provision at dinner around a food-laden table, and then lay down next to their wife, down the hall from their kids, and drift off to sleep while half-heartedly talking to You about it in suburban comfort?

I’ve told You before that if I survive this, I’m sure I’ll some day see this as mercy. Some day I’ll appreciate it that You have me on the “remedial surrender” plan, and don’t expect me to have to give up all the things that others have to give up. You’ve already taken most of those things from me.

Now You’re demanding the rest.

I feel like You’ve driven me to the edge of a precipice, thoroughly wrecked and destroyed my avenues of retreat, and then had the unmitigated gall to tell me that whether I jump and trust You to catch me is my choice. The real irony is that I’m standing here pretending like there’s a real choice to be made. There is nothing to return to. There is no path back. There is only the step into the dark unknown.

I know You exist. I know You are good. I even know that You love me with an everlasting love, and that You cannot change. I also know, like Rich Mullins said, that being loved by You is one of the most painful things that a human being can ever endure. My doubt today is pretty much all tied up in wondering if I going to be able to survive Your love. It hurts. It hurts like nothing ever has.

I don’t know how to surrender these last few things. We’re down to the level where my “need” for what You’re asking me to give up is so great that my fingers won’t voluntarily release them. You’re probably going to have to just keep taking things away.

I believe Rich was also right when he said that being loved by You, as excruciating as it will always be, is the only path to salvation. I know that what makes true faith theoretically different from all false hopes is that You graciously equip me to obey that which You require.

So, let’s try this: You keep utterly destroying me … and I’ll keep doing my best to remain utterly incapable of making anything good of myself. Deal?

I love You.

Amen