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.


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.


Wait In The Fire

I won’t pretend I haven’t been here before. This reaching up with quivering desperation, this staggering to my feet again (sorta) … it’s become a bit of a cliché. And frankly the cycle seems to be ramping up its frequency. The waves seem to hit now before I’ve really got my feet beneath me from the last time around. All the things that were true a week ago are still true … and there’s more.

Since then, my church has announced that two of our elders are stepping down from their positions and leaving Oak Hills. One of them was the music minister. There really isn’t a worship team anymore, also leaving is the keyboardist I’ve worked and sung with for more than a decade. One of them is taking with him his high school age son who I was really looking forward to getting to know. All of them friends, brothers and sisters. All of them my people. All of them leaving holes that can’t really be filled. I know that I ought to buck up and believe that we’ll weather this. We’ve weathered devastating storms before. Honestly though, I’m afraid. I’m afraid this could be the end for Oak Hills.

My ministry job … gone.

So many of my friends in Ecuador … gone.

Ecuador itself … gone.

My wife, my best friend, my marriage … gone.

Having a home, owning a car, being financially secure … gone

Had a job for two months, but now I’m back to the employment hunt.

Anyone who knows me at all knows just how much my church means to me. Oak Hills has been, for a decade and a half, a center around which community and worship and ministry and life have revolved for me. Now its future is shaky? What is God doing? What has He left me?

(I’m not sure when this blog switched from being an exploration of gospel themes and became my very public journal. Hope it switches back soon.)

I think I understand why the frequency of the cycle is increasing. I think it’s tied to what I wrote about here. I think it’s wrapped up in thinking that trusting God looks like a confidence that He’s going to fix my problems in a particular way, and being able to believe it (a.k.a. “trusting”) for a while, but then eventually getting broken down by the absence of things I think I need and going through my yelling at God phase again.

Had a conversation with my good friend Tank* a couple of days ago. He probably didn’t know what he was getting into. I let him have it. I was crying, ranting, sniffling, and probably making very little sense.

I felt like I had my hand in the fire, I told him. Maybe more than just my hand. There comes a point beyond which the avoidance of pain is no longer a higher cognitive affair. The choosing to yank your hand out of the fire isn’t so much a decision as it is an instinct. It hurts and it has to stop. It must stop. It cannot continue! I told him that I stepped back and looked at my life and the things that kept piling up and knew that I was past being able to juggle things. There are too many “things” for that. I’m now beginning to really wonder if the sheer weight of things will crush me. And, I told him, I feel like God’s asking me to keep my hand in the fire, to just hold it there. And I don’t know how.

He paused for a long moment and then responded in his typical fashion, gentle and affirming. He said “Gosh” a lot. He told me that he had no idea what I was feeling, that it had to be so incredibly painful. Basically, he said everything you should say to someone who’s in soul agony … right up to the point where he said something really offensive.

“Is the place where you find yourself,” he said. “Is it possible that it’s the answer to your prayer that the gospel become more tangible and less rhetorical? Is it possible that God’s answering your prayer, and doing it in you first?”

I wish I could tell you that divine joy flooded my heart instantaneously. I wish I could say that all of my struggles melted away into insignificance in the light of God’s consuming truth and glory. Honestly, most of what I felt was anger. Most of what I thought was “You can’t be serious!” The pain, God! The agony! I can’t possibly do this one more day!

But then I felt my Father’s whisper in my heart. I heard Him say, “Do you want to see if this thing flies?” It was as though I could hear a small smile in His voice. He wasn’t scolding me. He was trying to restrain His excitement, like He was finally revealing a surprise He’d been holding onto until just the right moment.

(I started speaking the words aloud to Tank. I’m sure he thought I’d finally gone over the edge.)

“Do you really want to see if this works? You’ve ranted and railed at your heroes, at Me, asking if it’s snake oil. You’ve questioned its viability, its ability to even exist in the real world. Do you want … to see … if it flies?”

“Because if that’s what you want, then we have to take off the training wheels. If that’s what you want, then everything that’s propping this up has to go. Every relationship that you lean on unhealthily, every institution in which you place ultimate confidence, every thing you run to instead of Me has to be removed from the equation. If you want this, every umbilical support line must be severed … or you’ll never know it’s really Me.”

I stood there at the edge of my abilities, staring into the void. I did the only thing I could. I shook with holy fear, and I cried, and I asked Him to hold my hand in the fire, to keep it there. Then I took a step into the dark.

The Sufi mystic Rumi taught about burning with divine love, letting your longing for God become this painful fire within you. He said that you must become so deeply surrendered to the conflagration that ultimately only God’s love remains. It is then, he said, that you will see the truth that the burning longing coming to life in your heart is not really yours at all, but is actually God’s longing for you.

There is a quote attributed to John Wesley. When asked about his philosophy of evangelism, he reportedly said “I set myself on fire and people come to watch me burn.” Perhaps the pain of the fire has purpose.

If there is anything in me that is blocking my Father’s longing for me, it would be cruelty for Him not to insist on its removal.



Re: Title … With apologies to Jeff Buckley.
* His name is David Tankersley, but it wigs me out to call him David. So I refuse. He’s “Tank.”