Defining Complacency, Zephaniah-style

I listened again to this poem this morning and thought it would be good to pass along.  It is worth a listen:  https://onbeing.org/blog/wendell-berry-the-peace-of-wild-things/

 

I have been reading in Zephaniah.  I wonder about the wording in chapter 1, verse 12:  At that time, I will search Jerusalem with lamps and I will punish the men who are complacent.  The literal translation of the word “complacent" refers to the dregs of wine, which happens to be the leftover part of the wine process that falls to the bottom and is essentially worthless or less than tasty.  In reading that word and pondering it a bit, I feared that perhaps it is true of me.  Have I grown complacent?  Thirty plus years of doing the same thing can cause a person to grow complacent.  There seems to be good bit of warning in the scriptures about this idea of growing complacent, albeit in different forms.  For example, Deuteronomy 8 warns God’s people with the duel formula of “remember” and “don’t forget.”  The writer to the Hebrew believers begins chapter 2 with these words:  Therefore we must pay closer attention to what we have heard lest we drift away from it.  And then perhaps the best example comes from Jesus, a different Jesus than the one with whom the apostle John walked the earth (1:12ff).  He told the Apostle to write these familiar words to the angel of the church at Laodicea:  I know your works: you are neither cold or hot.  Would that you were either cold or hot!  So because you are lukewarm (might complacent fit here?) and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.

Earlier in the first chapter of Zephaniah’s writing, God’s coming wrath is because the people stopped inquiring of the Lord.  That is in sharp contrast to the king who ruled Judah during this particular prophet’s day.  His name, v1, is Josiah.  He was one of the good guys.  His father was not.  Josiah became king in name only at the age of eight due to his father’s wickedness.  But 18 years later, he went into action.  He began a reformation.  The temple was restored and in the process, the book of the Law was discovered.  When this good-hearted king read the Law or most likely had it read to him, he wept over the failure of his nation. Repentant describes this young king’s heart.  Horrified by their national failure, he order the law to be read and the people, like their king, wept and repented.  Because of his actions, God promised him peace during his reign.  Josiah was not complacent nor did he do what the people had done before him, namely, stop inquiring of the Lord.

When I read this charge vs. the people of God in verse 6, my mind went immediately to the words of Jeremiah, chapter 2.  Jeremiah was a contemporary to Zephaniah.  In Jeremiah’s second chapter, we read that those responsible for the spiritual health of the nation—the fathers and the priests—had stopped asking an important question:  Where is the Lord?    Another way to say it might be this:  What is God up to?  When he appears silent, what might he be doing?  When he doesn’t answer our prayers, what is he up to? When circumstances overwhelm us and God seems distant, is He still at work?  When little changes in me, in others, in my children, or life is so boring or routine, is God doing anything at all?

A person dear to me stopped into my office yesterday struggling immensely with the direction life has gone.  While I ache over his pain, I reminded myself and him that everything is an opportunity.  God is not inactive.  He is working despite appearances.  I wonder if at the heart of complacency is this foolish belief that God doesn’t seem to be doing anything, doesn’t seem to care and thus, we are on our own to do whatever we deem best.  We are in survival mode because after all, life is confirming one of my deepest fears:  I really am all alone, on my own, so if I am to survive, I must take matters into my own hands.

Perhaps the rest of verse 12 of Zeph’s first chapter defines for us complacency in a way consistent with what I am suggesting.  Here is the verse in its entirety: At that time, I will search Jerusalem with lamps and I will punish the men who are complacent, those who say in their hearts, “The Lord will not do good, nor will he do ill.  This is a literary feature I like to call a “poetic double-down.”  We see it earlier in verse 6 when the people are told by the prophet that the judgment of God is coming because they do not seek the Lord, they do not inquire of him.  Same idea expressed twice but in different words in order to drive the point home.  Another way of saying complacent, then is this little, subtle heart sentence that God really isn’t personal, doesn’t really see me or care.

To be complacent is to assume something about God that just isn’t true. In fact, God gets testy when we assume something that is in stark contrast to the truth about Him.  In other words, nothing could be further from the truth than to suggest He is inactive, insensitive.  To assume he doesn’t really care, isn’t really concerned, isn’t active nor personal in our lives is foolish.  Years of beat down by life can lead a person to that assumption, subtly, deep in one’s heart, which is where the Lord says such a notion resides.  We might not say it with our words but it might be lodged somewhere difficult to detect that shapes how we live and think.  We need a wake up call like what Josiah received when the law was rediscovered.  We need to be stopped, hushed from our foolishness, exposed perhaps so that we awaken again and live with right understanding about our God.  I see this idea in verse 7 where the prophet, speaking for God says, Be silent before the Lord.  In other words, hush!  Quiet yourself to consider that Almighty God and his day is drawing near.  It is a day whether coming in Judah’s future or ours (their is allowance in scripture for both to be true) when everyone will see that God is THE God of gods and THE Lord of lords.  There is no other.  He is the King to whom we pledge our allegiance.  He has been ruling all along.  Seek him and him alone.

I remind myself today that if God is searching the city for those who are complacent, I believe he is also searching for those who aren’t.  I recall two other images from the prophets where God was searching or locating those who feared the Lord, or took him seriously amidst the difficulty of life.  The first is found in Ezekiel 9.  Six executioners have been summoned to spread out throughout the city to destroy those who have committed abominations in the temple.  But before they are sent out, God calls forth a single man, dressed in fine linen.  His job is to first go through the city and locate those who have lived troubled by what has and is transpiring in the world around them.  Mark the forehead, says the Lord God, of those who are not afraid to acknowledge and grieve over how bad things are and who, by implication, live in hope of a better day as they live for their God.

The second image is found in Malachi.  Amidst the complacency of God’s people during Malachi’s day, there is a band of faithful pilgrims who have gathered together to remind each other to persevere.  We are told that God bends down low to hear what they are saying amongst themselves and because they live taking the Lord seriously (fear of the Lord), He remembers them, recording their names in a Book of Remembrance.  I want my name in that book!  I suspect you do too!  God help us.  Reveal to us where we have become complacent.  Wake us up!  You are a good and merciful God.

Kent

A Lasting Legacy

Mark wasn’t there.  He did not hear firsthand the words of the Lord.  He did not experience personally the confusion of the disciples as they listened to the parables of Jesus.  He certainly was not present to observe the interplay between the disciples, watching how they responded to each other or to Jesus.  So, where did he get his information?  Church history tells us that his source was the Apostle Peter.  Given that likelihood, how does Peter portray himself to Mark?  What is the legacy Peter wishes to leave behind as his own personal story is interwoven with the Gospel story?

There is so much made about one’s legacy.  We hear it from athletes and presidents.  Christian leaders at times talk about the legacy they hope to leave or those in their inner circle might sometimes maneuver in order to help leave a lasting legacy.  What was the legacy that the Apostle Peter wanted to leave behind?  When I think about Peter and the legacy he wanted to impart, my mind goes to the words he wrote in his first epistle at the very beginning:  Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.  In his great mercy, he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Those words, in my mind, stand in stark contrast to the portrait we have of Peter as a young man.  And these words written as an elderly man also fit the season of Easter upon which we have now embarked (do you know that Easter is not simply a day but a season within the church calendar?).

My word this year for Easter Sunday was “new” or “newness.”  The resurrection means that newness is possible anywhere, anyplace and in any person.  The enemy known as death (and think separation here that leads to soul death as much as physical death) that threatens to destroy and defeat us has been overcome by the crucifixion and the resurrection.  Peter speaks about newness in his "legacy” words of 1 Peter 1.  He himself was given a “do-over” by his Savior.  He was given a new chance.  At the end of his life he was now talking about mercy and second chances and living hope, and if there was a legacy to be left, it was this.  But it was not always so.  His story, as recounted by Mark and his Gospel, is different.  And this Gospel account, via the life of Peter, reminds us that newness is a process, a rather long, life-long process.  It takes faith to believe it is happening in us, in others and all around us, but the resurrection reminds us that it is indeed happening.  It will takes eyes and ears of faith to recognize.

Through Mark, Peter says to us, “let me let you in on my life so that your ultimate focus will be rightly placed":  Praise be to the God and Father of Jesus.  It is his great mercy that matters.  It is his mercy that creates the opportunity for newness.  I was, says Peter, the guy who got it right in professing Jesus as the Messiah.  But then so quickly I got it wrong by interfering with an eternal plan requiring Jesus’s death.  I was the same guy who was convinced I would and could remain loyal to Jesus despite the weakness of the others, even bragging to Jesus, but then I couldn’t and I didn’t, buckling under fear that fateful night.  And I was the guy who still thought God’s ultimate plan wasl going to transpire based on the world’s idea of power, revealed by my wielding of a sword in the garden in front of Jesus and others.  So much of who I was developed out of a self-confidence that I would later discover is NOT the kingdom way.  Let me tell you what the kingdom way is.  Let me tell you what the legacy is I wish to leave behind:  In his great mercy, he has given me newness of life into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus.

This journey is long and sometimes painful.  It typically starts badly because in our youthfulness we mistakenly begin out of a self-assurance and confidence in our giftedness/abilities.  But it ends well.  It ends in worship:  Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.   It ends in recognition of where life is truly found:  In his great mercy.  In mercy, newness of life takes root.  In mercy, one gets used to the need for second chances and do-overs.

You do recall how Peter got to this point right?  Good Friday, where a dark night resulted not only in the death of our Savior but almost the life of not one but two disciples. It happened so quickly:  once, twice, and before I (Peter) could even catch myself, it happened a third time.  And if that was not enough, I looked around terrified only to catch the eye of Jesus.  I was not met with disgust or even disappointment; rather, I was met with the same thing I saw in His eyes toward that Samaritan woman sometime back:  compassion.  Sadness over the bondage in my soul.  I was indeed in bondage to my failure, devastated such that I could not find words.  Eventually, like a good Jew, I remembered that the psalms are our prayers when we can’t find our own words and Psalm 69 became mine.  Read it for yourself but these words still resonate for me:  O God save me!  For the waters have come up to my heck.  I sink in deep mire where there is not foothold.  I am weary from crying out.  Answer me, Lord…according to your abundant mercy, turn to me.  He answered me but not that first night nor the second.  In His relentless commitment to breath new life into His people, God met me at the very place where he first called me, by the seashore.  When one fails, he or she often retreats back to what they are good out.  I was a fisherman at heart so I went back to the sea.  Jesus met me there.  And while it was initially painful, making me relive it 3 times, it led to a reinstatement based no longer on any self-confidence but rather on the mercy of my God and the call to get back up and live out of a different hope and energy.  Resurrection power!  Ah, a reason to celebrate the resurrection not just on Easter but every Sunday, every day actually.  

The cornerstone of our faith—resurrection--reminds us that God is always at work bringing about newness in His people, born out of darkness and death and failure.  This is Peter’s legacy to us:  In his great mercy, he has given us newness of life into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Peace and mercy to you because of the Resurrection!

 

Kent

Despising Shame

I suspect you have heard or read these words before, words referring to Jesus:  He became like us so that we might become like him.  Another sentence, in a similar vein is this:  He came to do what we could not do.  Those words are apropos when it comes to the Law.  Jesus came to do what we could not do:  fulfill the obligations of law.  I think about the temptations in the same way:  Jesus did in the wilderness what Israel, and we with them, were unable to do as they lived in the wilderness and as we continue to live in the wilderness.  I want to see if I can connect those two sentences in what follows.

I have recently done some thinking on the topic of shame, encouraged by the reading Curt Thompson’s book, The Soul of Shame.  It is a worthwhile read though you have to wade through some neurobiology information at points.  In my most recent sermon, I thought about the idea presented to us by the author of Hebrews, namely, that Jesus despised the shame in order to walk toward death.  As I thought about crucifixion and what transpires, I recall that it was typical for the person crucified to hang naked.  It was part of the shame endured as a criminal.  I stopped to consider many of the ways Jesus was shamed during this period of time we now observe as the Passion Week.  He was betrayed and denied by close friends.  He was arrested on trumped up charges.  He was slapped by a soldier as he stood before the high priest.  Stripped and mocked by soldiers, made to wear a crown of thorns as if to state, “Here, King, is your royalty!”  God’s own words used against Him by the religious leaders and then rejected for a notoriously bad man by the people for whom He came to save.  Shame was not present on the cross alone but throughout the week’s events, over and over again.  It culminates in hanging physically exposed on the cross. Obviously, our images and depictions of the crucifixion rarely if ever exhibit this naked aspect of our Savior.  As I pondered this, I was drawn back to Adam and Eve’s immediate choice to clothe themselves upon their awareness as being naked. They could not endure the shame that flooded their souls and even when God came calling, inviting them to step into the healing light of naked exposure, they could not do it, settling for blaming and excuses.  All this brought to mind the sentence above that Jesus came to do what we, and in this case Adam, could not do.  Adam and Eve hid in their nakedness. This response to sin and weakness continues to plague us, keeping us separated from God and each other.  Once again, my favorite verse comes into play:  There is a way that seems like life but in the end it leads to death.  Conversely there is a way that seems like death that in the end leads to life.  Jesus, as the Apostle Paul points out, truly was the 2nd Adam.  He did what Adam could not do, what we struggle to do. He did not run from nakedness but rather stared it down, taking away its debilitating power.  Thank God He did because it resulted in life for anyone willing to step into the light of God’s mercy and grace.

This is what it means to scorn or despise something, to do what Jesus did. It is to stare it down and not allow it to have power over us.  Shame has such power, power to immobilize and separate.  Jesus essentially offered freedom from shame’s bondage.  And this is where the first sentence above comes into play:  He became like us so that we might become like him.  He defeated shame so that we might also move against it.  This defeat doesn’t mean we don’t continue to wrestle with it, in the same sense that He defeated sin but we continue to wrestle with the remnants of its power.  What it does mean is that we are no longer paralyzed by it.  It is possible to move in the face of it rather than remain hidden and immobilized.

Have you ever considered how when something that has power in our lives is removed it creates a vacuum?  Years ago, I read a book by Gerald May entitled Addiction and Grace.  Perhaps you have heard of it. Two truths remain from the reading of this book 20+ years ago.  The first was this:  everyone is addicted to something.  We all are addicts.  That speaks of our hunger and thirst for what we don’t have and for what we were created.  May's second truth was this idea of a vacuum.  If we remove the addiction, something else will take its place.  A vacuum is created.  I recall a couple of years ago during the Lenten season that I tried to give up my love (sanitized word for addiction) for Mountain Dew.  What I recall discovering was that I found myself turning into the local Dairy Queen more often, a place I seldom frequent.  It occurred to me that I had just traded one addiction for another.

If Jesus scorned shame, essentially de-powerizing it, what was the replacement?  I wonder if the answer is not found in the immediate context, specifically the words preceding this idea of despising/scorning?  I would argue that what filled the vacuum was the joy set before Him.  And what was this joy?  I would argue against an anthropocentric answer to this question.  I don’t think His primary joy was our salvation. A secondary joy no doubt.  Instead, I would suggest his primary joy was the opportunity to bring glory to his Father, to reveal the kind of God we call ours.  This is what we read in John 17, that famous prayer just before he headed toward the cross. Jesus’ deepest desire was to glorify His father by making Him known.  His deepest joy was theocentric, that is, His joy was in pleasing His Father by fulfilling his ultimate purpose.  That purpose is laid out for us in Hebrews 1:  He is the radiance of the glory of God, the exact representation of his being.  How Jesus moved and loved was so that we could discover the heart of God, so that we could become like him.  He became like us so that we might become like him.

Here is the thing:  Jesus did just that.  He made it possible for us to likewise not be controlled by shame.  We will feel it.  But we need not be controlled by it.  It is possible for us when made aware by the Spirit of God, to move against shame, whether that be moving for the sake of another in the face of being misunderstood or ridiculed, or whether it be stepping into the light to admit our failure.  The same Spirit that empowered Jesus lives within to empower us.  Both of these opportunities, be it in pouring ourselves out for another or in bathing in God’s forgiveness are opportunities for joy.  Both of these bring delight to our God.  We will need His help to do it. He has given us that help, in the person of his Holy Spirit.

As we consider Good Friday and the Resurrection on Sunday, be reminded that Jesus did for us what we could not do for ourselves.  Thank Him in gratitude.  There is freedom from the bondage of shame.  Be reminded too, that His coming and enduring the cross and then defeating death through the Resurrection also means that we are now, on occasion, able to become like Him in how we go about our lives and in how we treat others.

Christ is Risen!

Kent

Behind Our Shame

As I continue to wrestle with the topic of shame, I begin by extracting these words from my last missive and in doing so, set a direction for the thoughts to follow:

I have had a paradigm shift from my early days of faith.  I came to understand at an early age that sin was the deepest problem, the reason for our rebellion.  At our core, we just want to rebel and have our way, it was assumed, which is what makes us disobey.  But I have since broadened my understanding.  Something else, I now believe, drives our sin.  It does not excuse our sin but I believe it motivates it.  And what I see behind our sin is terror!  Behind our shame is our terror!  Fear is not a strong enough word.  Motivated by terror that perhaps things aren’t as they seem, the first couple ate in disobedience. And then the onslaught began.

Whenever and wherever Karla and I go to speak, one topic is nearly always presented:  the insatiable thirst of the human soul.  CS Lewis describes it as “the secret signature of the soul,” that we are thirsty people, thirsty ultimately for God and for things to be right with him, in us and between us, including the creation. I want to say more about thirst as it pertains to shame.  Let me first make a point I have made in the past:  thirst is our ticket home to heaven!  I say that because of what I see in Revelation.  The last characteristic describing man is thirst:  The Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who hears say, 'come.’  Let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without cost (Rev 22:17).  It seems we had better not lose our thirst.  The enemy’s strategy is just that:  to use the things of this world to fool us into satiating our thirst.  I think the enemy wants us to believe that God is here to satisfy our hunger and thirst.  We can, I believe, wrongly hear the words of Jesus—whoever drinks of the water I give him will never thirst again—as a promise of deep satiation now.  I DO believe we get tastes of deep satisfaction in Christ.  We have moments when God meets us.  But the experience of the saints of old seems to indicate that they remained thirsty.  And Heb 11:13ff seems to imply that people of deep faith have to come to the realization that they will never be satisfied this side of glory.  As friends and churches, we must help each other not only recognize our thirst beneath our indulgence and comfort but also to rightly identify our thirst as being for God.

That being said, here is a question:  If thirst is to be there at the end of time as we know it, was it there in the beginning?  I think it was though not initially recognized because of the Presence of God. The umbilical cord of life was connected to the Source of Life.  But Satan played on the first couple’s thirst with the words, Did God really say…?  That question elicited at least two other questions within the human heart:  Can God be trusted? and some version of a question about oneself:  “Am I really okay?"  You might change the wording of that question upon reflection within your own soul.  Severing the cord from the Source quickly made the first couple aware of their thirst, probably in the form of desperation and terror.  What I want us to consider and wonder about is the notion of thirst being present from the beginning because—and here is my key point today—thirst is behind our shame.

If you stop to consider moments of shame or the potential for shame, it is not difficult to trace a line to one’s thirst for something. I felt shame and the potential for it the other day at an event and as I considered what was transpiring, I came to the conclusion that I long to matter, matter deeply.  The deep terror is alienation/abandonment/rejection.  I was created to find life in connection to God and others.  To be dependent is to acknowledge that we are not ourselves by ourselves but rather in connection to something outside ourselves.

While there is a shame that is not healthy, as pointed out in the book I recommended last time (The Soul of Shame), there also seems to be a healthy aspect to it.  In Jeremiah 6, the prophet, speaking the words of the Lord God, suggests that God’s people were not ashamed at their acts of abomination.  In fact, they did not even know how to blush! says God. (Jer 6:15)  What was the problem?  One must go all the way back to chapter 2 to see what made God so angry.  Jeremiah has been called (ch 1) and now dispatched to point out the problem (ch 2).  This second chapter begins with a bit of nostalgia.  God remembers the way things were, the good ol’ days.  Those were the days when Israel was faithful to their God. Now, however, it was no longer true.  And the problem began when those responsible for the health of the nation stopped asking a rather important question, (vv6 &8):  Where is the Lord?  Perhaps another way to say it is this:  What is God up to?  Both the fathers and the priests had neglected their duty to keep God on the forefront of people’s minds.  But God is not finished. We have a court scene in what follows as God argues his case, calling the witnesses of other nations (Have they changed their gods?)  and the heavens (v12).  And then the charges, two in nature.

Perhaps you are familiar with these words and if not, you should make yourself so.  They describe what is transpiring in every human heart and they must be addressed if we are going to get anywhere in our spiritual formation.  Here are God’s charges vs. his people:  

1) you have forsaken me, the Living Water, and

2) dug for yourselves broken cisterns that ultimately cannot hold water.  

In this scene laid out by Jeremiah, we have Eden 201.  What happened in the garden of Eden happened again amidst the people of Israel:  they forsook God and went after something else.  It continues to happen in us today.

The problem is not that the people were thirsty.  We're all thirsty.  We should be thirsty.  The problem, however,  is not our thirst; rather, it is that we turn away from the true Source of water and then go after things that ultimately don’t satisfy.  In our thirst, we ask the created rather than the Creator to fill the emptiness of our hearts and souls, says the Apostle Paul in Romans 1:25.  Let me say it again:  thirst is not the problem!  Yet, we often mistakenly place our shame on our thirst.  "I shouldn’t have wanted that” we think, or some version of it.  Satan is masterful at getting us to pervert everything.  In this case, the perversion is to place shame on our desire rather than on what we do with our desire.  That's misplaced shame. Misplaced shame works to keep us from healthy shame.  Save your shame for where it belongs because where it belongs is in our turning away from God to look elsewhere for the satisfaction of our hunger and thirst.

God wanted his people to be ashamed, to blush because what seemed logical and intuitive was actually abominable.  God’s people, starting with Adam and Eve, prostituted themselves so that they did not have to feel the ache of living in a fallen world as hungry and thirsty people.  "I am naked for crying’ out loud, it makes sense to cover up and hide.”  “I am hungry and Egypt offers food and drink.  Why would I not go?”  "I feel dead inside. Why not eat more than I should or spend money I don’t really have?"  "My husband never seems to notice me.  Why not nag?"

We need to keep working to rightly identify our thirst.  Then what?  Then follow Jesus’s lead.  I see three ways to do that.  First, and it is counter-intuitive and seemingly illogical, wait.  Live thirsty.  Do you recall that Jesus while offering the disciples bread and wine in the upper room (Lk 22) said that he would not eat or drink again until the day we are home with Him?  Talk about a hunger strike!  40 days in the desert pale in comparison.  I fasted on Ash Wednesday, one whole day and it about killed me (a tad bit shallow perhaps?).  Jesus continues to wait, to live thirsty.  As he hung on the cross, he cried out, I thirst.  Someone offered him something to drink but he refused because his soul was waiting for something more.  We really can live thirsty.  We really can wait because we now possess the same Spirit that Jesus did.

Secondly, we can then exercise our wills by saying No to temptations.  Yes to waiting.  No to striking back.  Yes to absorbing another’s hatred/unkindness.  No to greed and yes to generosity. No to getting ahead at someone else’s expense and yes to self-denial.  We can choose kindness and patience.  We can discipline ourselves and when we do, we create a solidness in our souls that can help us down the road.  Little choices are not measurable and yet they create a solid foundation from which further resistance to Satan’s temptations and our flesh’s pull can come.

Lastly, we can follow Jesus’s lead by understanding what he knew and stated in John 4:  My food is to do the will of my Father.  What fed him was putting His Father’s character on display to a foolish and badly misguided world about where life is found.  We can come to understand that the same thing feeds our souls.  We wrongly assume we are fed by TV and gadgets and accumulation. We are not.  We are fed by doing what Jesus did:  loving another even when we are tired.  We are fed by displaying grace when being critical seems more life-giving.  I told you it would be counter-intuitive.  We will need the help of God’s Spirit.

Shame can be just another pathway to God.  Step into the light of exposure with God, to yourself and perhaps with a safe person or two and you just might discover your thirst for what God offers us as a gracious, compassionate, steadfastly loving and loyal God.

Grace upon grace to you,

Kent

Good News of Great Joy

Happy New Year to you!  Every time I think about a new year my default passage is 1 Peter 1:3.  I call it “God’s do-over” to us.  In his mercy he has given us a restart.  He has granted us the opportunity to begin anew with Him in his kingdom work here, all because of the resurrection of Jesus.  No longer are we headed down dead end streets as the Apostle Paul states in Ephesians 2:1.  No longer are we bound to a  bankrupt life of selfishness.  Jeremiah defines that as pursuing worthlessness and becoming worthless in the process.  Because of God’s great mercy—and what a gift!—we get repeated do-overs when we slip up and make life about ourselves rather than discovering the joy of putting God on display in all the many and unique ways he has written on each of our hearts.  So, Happy New Year in the richest sense of those words.

I am back from sabbatical and thus this writing.  It was a good break, one filled with difficulty that from a human perspective was not what I would have wished for but I suspect has God’s fingerprints all over it for my good and for the good of the church here.

Joy is the topic that has been prevalent in my mind and heart.  Are joy and happiness congruent?  I guess it depends upon how you define it.  Typical definitions of happiness, I would suggest, are not consistent with joy.  But if we define happiness the way the ancient Greeks did, namely, as living congruent with one's deepest nature, then perhaps it is possible to see joy and happiness as one in the same.  But that takes some explaining.

Joy has always been one of those elusive topics to me.  What exactly is it?  CS Lewis writes that joy is never in our power while pleasure (happiness defined shallowly) is.  So as I thought about the topic, I began with God.  Do I view God as happy, as joyous?  Truthfully, I am not sure that comes to mind when I think of characteristics about God.  I might eventually get there but it is not near the top of my list.  Is God a joyful God?  And then this question came to mind as I pondered the issue:  Why did God create man in the first place?  If we rightly understand God as a Community, which the doctrine of the Trinity does, we understand the three beings of God as one, as united in purpose and love.  Might we consider their community of love to then be a joyous one?  And does it follow that God create man to enjoy their joy by being a part of what they are all about?

My mind next went to the oral exam that Job encountered at the hands of God.  The very week I spoke these words to our church family, one member was about to embark on his own oral exam for his doctorate.  I wished him well, telling him that surely it would not compare to Job’s exam who was unable to answer a single question.  Here is an example, but notice the context in which the creative event occurs: Where were you, Job, when I laid the foundations of the earth?  On what were it bases sunk or who laid its cornerstone, when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?  Joy was present in the beginning as God created the heavens and the earth.  I suspect joy accompanied God everywhere because He is a God of joy.  King David affirms as much when in a song of thanksgiving, precipitated by the ark being brought into the tent of God’s Presence, David wrote, For great is Yahweh.  Splendor and majesty are before him; strength and joy are in his place!  God is not just occasionally joyful.  God is joy!

So when we arrive at Advent and the Christmas season, it is with joy the sending of Jesus into this world came.  The angels said to the shepherds, fear not, for behold I bring you good news of great joy.  Might we be able to consider that God is motivated out of His joy when he moves toward this broken world that includes humanity?

Listen to Jesus.  Faced with his impending death and now praying to His Father, he says these thick words:  But now Father, I am coming to you and these things I speak in the world that they may have my joy filled up in them.  Jesus had joy even though his circumstances were about to grow rather dim, painfully so.  And that begs this possibility:  Joy is not incompatible with sorrow.  Happiness as typically understood is.  But not joy.  The prophet Isaiah informs us in the 53rd chapter that this same man who tells us about His joy (John 17) was equally familiar with sorrow and grief.  We might foolishly be tempted to believe that joy and suffering/sorrow are opposites when it fact they are not very far apart at all.  In fact, some of the people whom I know to be people who struggle with profound grief over the way things are in this world and in themselves are also people who know deep joy.  It is a shallow faith, then, to think that to be happy in Jesus means that we not acknowledge how off-center the world is and our lives with it.  Conversely, I would argue that to know the joy of the Lord requires one to grieve over all that is fractured and fragmented in this world.

So what then is joy?  I turn to the words of Hebrews 12:2 and invite you to ponder them with me.  The writer says this:  For the joy set before him, Jesus endured the cross…, which begs the question, what was the joy that was set before Jesus?  Is it the same joy available to us?  Here is my answer:  the joy available to Jesus, and the joy equally available to us, is the joy that comes from seeing every situation or circumstance as an opportunity to please the Father!  Jesus became like us so that we could become like Him.  Becoming like him involves walking in this broken world believing that it will provide us opportunity to put God on display in how we respond certainly in the big tests but even more so in the everyday mundane moments of our relationships.  Is my spouse’s defensiveness a possible opportunity for me to know joy as I stop to consider how I might bring God joy in my response?

I had a meeting with some people one night recently and in the course of our conversation it became apparent that one individual was angry.  She didn’t want to talk about it but was eventually encouraged to do so.  And as it unfolded it became clear her anger was at me.  I was in the middle of writing these words.  I recall thinking, “Okay, Lord, rather than get defensive, how do I represent you?”  I think I did a decent job that night and I think I walked away tasting a bit of joy that was not dependent upon circumstances changing or an individual treating me better than she had.  I needed the Spirit’s help not to respond out of my flesh and boy did I ever want to!  But in asking for help, I got it from the Helper, who according to Paul is the one who produces in us the joy we long to know.

What I like about this understanding of joy is that it is never dependent upon circumstances or the other person.  It’s instead between God and me.  Our deepest joy comes to us when we seek to please our Father regardless of whether the situation changes or the person sees things the way I think they should.  Jesus essentially communicated or implied as much in John 17.  The joy we know comes from loving and working toward oneness as a way to please our Heavenly Father rather than to get things to go and people to respond as we would like.

I think Jesus’s joy had little to do with our response to his saving initiative.  Perhaps our response to his offer of mercy and grace doubles His pleasure but His deepest pleasure/joy came in coming to this earth to rightly reflect to the world the kind of Father God He knew and the joy of their community to which we are invited.  I think our joy is contingent on the same thing.  It is a joy that comes in offering love to a world tattered and torn by a lack thereof.  May we come to know God’s true joy that is available to us every day.

Grace upon grace to you for the best is yet to come.

Kent

I Might be Maturing If...

What does maturity look like?  How do we know if we are maturing?  The Apostle Paul seemed concerned with it as he wrote to his young protégé named Timothy.  Like Paul, Peter spoke of it when he invited his audience to “grow up” into salvation.  Books are continually written about the topic and sermons on the subject are frequent.  I suspect it would be hard to nail down exactly what maturity is but perhaps we can consider a few truths that if embraced might indicate a level of maturity.   

Let me first offer my definition of maturity that runs counter to what I believed as a youngster growing up in the church.  Maturity, I have come to understand, is a growing awareness of my sinfulness that leads to an even deeper appreciation for God’s mercy and grace.  That might be worth pondering. 

What else defines maturity?  Paul wrote to Timothy these words:  Continue in what you have learned and become convinced of, knowing from whom you learned it.  He does not delineate what it is Timothy has learned from him and from others, or what convictions govern Timothy’s growing faith.  So, let’s go for our own list knowing there are more or we might each say it a bit differently.  I am going to borrow from a Franciscan brother, Richard Rohr, who suggests in his teaching and speaking about the Judeo-Christian faith that there are five markers of maturity that one must embrace in the faith.  I want to borrow four and add two of my own.  But here is the twist:  see if you can identify the lie that stands in opposition, a lie that can pull us away from the truth because it sounds enticingly true when it isn’t.

Here is the first:  Life is hard!  In the beginning (Gen 1 & 2), everything was right and good.  In the end, (Rev 21 & 22), everything will once again be right and good.  We don’t live in the beginning and we haven’t reached the end.  Therefore, life is hard!  The story of which we are a part is good but it contains difficult chapters.  We might deem such chapters as bad; they are not.  They are hard.  Life is hard.  At the same time, lest we lose balance, there is much to be enjoyed.  And we should; just don’t mistake it for the belief that life should be better than it is.  That day is coming.  It has not, however arrived yet.

The lie?  Before reading on, take a shot at trying to identify the lie for you, in your own words.  Here is mine:  if I do the right things, follow God, work hard and make the right connections, then things should turn out as I expect.  Anything less is unfair.  That unfairness then justifies how I respond to life and others in ways that are inconsistent with God’s ways.

Truth #2:  Life is not about me!  From 1948-54, 10,000 adolescents were interviewed, asked to respond to the question, “Do you consider yourself to be an important person?”  12% said yes.  In 1989, the question was revisited.  Nearly 80% of those surveyed answered in the affirmative.  Today, we are driven by the words from William Earnest Henley’s poem, Invictus:  “I am the master of my fate/I am the captain of my soul.  Maturity requires us to fight against what infiltrated the heart back in the days of Adam, which was to turn away from God and make life about oneself.  Mostly, we do this in subtle ways, with a self-serving energy guiding our actions.  As we well know, good actions can be motivated by really selfish energy.  Here is a good habit to do:  Every time you read the word sin in the Scriptures, substitute the word “self” because that’s what sin is, a commitment to oneself above all else, everyone else.

The lie?  It is critical that I matter.  I have a voice and I should be heard or seen by others as important.  If I am not, it is my primary task to make sure I am lest I come face to face with this gnawing reality/terror that I really don’t matter all that much.

Here is the third:  I am not in control!  We think we are.  We work to be in control.  To be in control though, we have to shrink our worlds down to manageable proportions and that usually excludes what matters most:  loving relationships that offer freedom.  My mind went to the rich young ruler who had everything we think would make life work (youthfulness, money, power, even religion) and yet something was not right in his soul that drove him to Jesus.  The invitation by God through the Spirit is to let go of what we have our fingers tightly wrapped around and in so doing, admit we really aren’t in control.  One of the purposes of suffering is to reveal where we are grasping so that we learn to trust.

The lie?  Stay busy with what I can manage in order to avoid getting in touch with deeper desires of my heart over which I have no control.  And certainly don’t give my heart to others; rather give it to things the world says are important, thus avoiding injury at the hands of others.

Truth #4:  I am going to die!  Enough said.  We have an infatuation culturally with not facing this reality even in the words we use about death.  But death is as much a reality as life/birth.  To remind oneself of this truth is to not take oneself too seriously.  It also requires we admit the first three truths, namely, that life is hard, it is not about me, and I am not in control.

So what is the lie?  Live only in the present without thought for the future.  Or, when the present is hard, live romanticizing one’s past, "the good ol’ days", when life seemed good and everything was in front of you.  Live for now, seeking jolt after jolt so as to never have to feel the truth that this world is not one’s home.

Because we are human and sinners, we are going to make mistakes is the fifth truth.  Some of these mistakes are sinful.  We are selfish people and we don’t love well.  We must learn to forgive and be forgiven.  We must accept disappointment without becoming angry and making another pay.  But there is another side to this story.  We are also human, which means we are finite.  We just aren’t all that good or gifted at certain things and its okay.  That is why there are others around us.  We are meant to compliment each other, not compete against one another.  We need what others bring to the table without beating ourselves up for not being good at what someone else is. Wouldn’t it be great if we could say, “I am not very good at that and I am glad you are.”  Wouldn’t it be freeing if every time I heard someone praise another person I didn’t have to feel threatened?

The lie?  Admitting mistakes is unacceptable because it means I am potentially vulnerable to not being important or needed.  And admitting mistakes comes dangerously close to the dreaded possibility of experiencing what I most fear:  condemnation.

Truth #6:  I must live aware of the secret signature of my soul!  What does that mean?  I stole the phrasing from CS Lewis who wrote, We cannot tell each other about it.  It is the secret signature of each soul, the incommunicable and unappeasable want, the thing we desired before we met our wives or made our friends or chose our work, and which we shall still desire on our deathbeds, when the mind no longer knows wife or friend or work.  While we are, this is.  If we lose it, we lose all.  I am, Lewis is, speaking about our thirst.  It is our thirst not for this world and its goodness but for God and for oneness with Him and each other.  It won’t be satisfied here.  I must admit (Heb 11:13) and accept this truth.  This secret signature is, rather, a honing device toward home; it is our ticket to heaven, according to Revelation 22:  Let the one who is thirsty come; let him who desires take from the water of life without cost. 

The lie?  Thirst is satiable.  Thirst is a problem, or it is present because I have done something wrong or made a wrong turn in my faith.  It is dangerous and needs killed lest it lead me down bad paths.  And besides, it sure seems like others have found a way not to feel it so perhaps I am missing out on something.

We don’t simply acknowledge these because we've heard them.  We must, day after day, keep coming back and reminding ourselves to “continue in what we have learned and become convinced of.”  We easily forget.  We drift away almost unknowingly from these truths.  Sometimes we have an experience that tempts us to believe they don’t have to be true.  There could be another way.  There isn’t.  Remind yourself so that depth develops in your soul and you can then speak wisely to others, inviting them on the path toward maturity with God and others.

Grace and peace to you.  Live in the patience of your good God.

 

Kent

Living Troubled As The Way to Go

Back At the well  known as the book of Nahum.  I now officially love this rather obscure book and little known prophet.  What a great message of hope and comfort to the people of God, at least those who live troubled by life, including their own.  Here is, once again, the singular and repetitive message of the book:  the enemy that has plagued you all these years will soon be destroyed, never again to threaten your heart and soul.  I can think of a few of those enemies in my life.  How about you? And I look forward to their demise.  It’s coming,says the prophet who speaks on God’s behalf.

Recall what the circumstances were during Nahum’s day.  The Assyrians were a thorn in the side of Israel.  Actually, they were more than a thorn.  Israel would be in captivity at the ends of this vicious enemy and the northern nation of Israel would never recover.  Assyria, with its capital city of Nineveh, was the big bad wolf of that day.  No one could match their power, and their cruelty was unparalleled.  They sat at the top of the food chain and it didn’t seem like there was much hope for the people of God.  But that is only man’s perspective.  It is not the perspective of the God who sits enthroned above the earth, its inhabitants looking rather puny to Him.  He is the one who brings princes to naught, writes another prophet, Isaiah, in chapter 40 of his book.  And that is the promise of Nahum.  The big bad enemy will be destroyed.

By the wa, my study in this book led me to a definition of the fear of the Lord and its counterpart, contempt. I won’t go into the details of how I arrived at this definition but let me offer one for each.  To fear the Lord is to care about what God cares about.  What matters to Him is what matters most to me.  When the prophet Malachi would later speak to God’s people, expressing numerous charges against them, the majority responded almost with indifference, as if they were perplexed by the prophet’s accusations.  In other words, they weren’t troubled by how they were living, almost oblivious.  That irked God as it always does, and it became the impetus for Malachi’s voice.  BUT, there were a few people, who “feared the Lord” (3:16), and they got together, I suspect to talk about how they could live holy/other/unlike the rest of God’s people who were untroubled.  What mattered to God mattered to this minority in Malachi’s day and we are told that God bent down low to hear what these people were saying.  It mattered to God to find a group of people who care about what He cares about.

Contempt for God, on the other hand, is the opposite of fear.  Contempt is to say to God by how we live and relate that what matters to you matters little to me, if at all.  What matters most to me is what I want, when I want it, and without regard for the cost to others.  Nineveh showed contempt for the people of God and thus, for God.  But, don’t forget, Israel had showed the same contempt toward God, which was the reason they were been tormented by the Assyrians in the first place.  God was using their worst enemy to first wake them up to the problem in their own hearts.  How annoying is that?  But now it was Assyria’s turn.  Nahum was, on behalf of God, promising to eventually punish Assyria for their self-promoting ways and contempt toward God.  Keep that in mind as we move forward and see a possible truth from this great book.

Here is what I want us to ponder.  At the end of chapter 1, we have an image of God’s messenger bounding from mountaintop to mountaintop announcing the good news of peace and hope.  It is the reason God instructs his people to “keep their feasts”, something I spoke to in the last writing.  Some see these words of hope in 1:15 as the beginning of chapter 2 rather than the end of chapter 1.  Perhaps with good reason because when you come to the end of chapter 2 we see the mention of other messengers only they have now lost their voices.  Like a good movie, chapter 2 plays between two scenes.  We have images of what is happening outside the walls of Nineveh as well as what is happening within.  If one looks outside, they see the approaching army, v3.  Within the walls of the city, there is chaos v4ff.  And then the “movie” ends with a voiceover, God speaking, telling the enemy that He is against them and they will be destroyed.  But then notice the last line:  the voice of your messengers will no longer be heard.  Those messengers were the one’s telling Nineveh and its rulers how great they were, how mighty their power and how secure their position as they sat self-assured behind their seemingly impenetrable walls.  They were untouchable, said Nineveh’s puppet prophets.  But now, as God began his assault, they were silent as the city was being plundered and the ruling family decimated.  What can we learn from these words of God?

I discovered this principle that to God’s people then and hopefully to us today is quite hopeful.  But for it to provide the comfort and hope intended, we need to be characterized by the same thing as that small band of pilgrims in Malachi’s day who feared the Lord.  Here is the principle:  for those who live troubled by life now, including their own lives, hope and peace are on the horizon.  A better day is coming!  But for those who live untroubled, who deny the mess of life, including their own, a day of reckoning is coming.  You have lived with contempt toward the God of the universe and his wrath is coming; it will be revealed against such people and their behavior.  We, on the other hand, are invited to live troubled, to get disgusted with our self-centeredness, to grieve the injustices of this world, to hate what God hates but to do so knowing and believing that peace is on the horizon.  God is not indifferent to it all but has a plan to set it all straight.  In the meantime, living hopefully means we seek to live in a way that represents Him until the day of redemption and reckoning arrives.  And when we fail to do so, we don’t deny it but return to the hope of our salvation, Jesus, taking refuge in Him, which in part means to get back on our feet and get busy again following Jesus.

Patience and peace to you,

Kent

Celebrate Good Times, Come On!

What do you know about the book of Nahum?  I didn’t know much about it until a recent prompting to read it and then, study it.  I have spent the past month plus in the book and I love it.  I love its singular and repetitive message, which I hear as this:  the enemy that has plagued your heart and soul will soon be destroyed, never again to threaten you.  I would classify that message as one of hope and comfort, which is what Nahum’s name means:  comfort.

I warn you:  the book is not pleasant.  So how is it meant to provide comfort to the people of God despite its terse and somewhat terrifying depiction of destruction?  I mentioned some of this in a past writing.  Nahum does not warm us up before striking.  He jumps right in, pointing out the coming wrath of God.  That is not a topic we think much about, nor do we like to.  I have but one comment to consider regarding a topic mentioned countless times in the Bible:  God’s wrath does not sit awkwardly next to His love.  Instead, his wrath is part of his love because he cares deeply.  He is not indifferent.  For that, we are grateful, because it is His wrath that will eventually destroy every enemy that plagues our hearts.

But it is another truth I wish to focus on today.  Tucked in the first chapter, toward the end are three words of great hope.  It is a command of God through the prophet Nahum that seem to be unfitting at first glance.  Have you ever gotten a bit of advice that seems backward, something rather odd to what you might at first assume would be the better way to go?  For example, as a freshman in college, coming off the bench for the first time in my career as a basketball player, an assistance coach advised me to initially engage with the action opposite of the way the game was unfolding. If the game was going slowly, I should play faster, he suggested.  If the game was going at a rapid pace, I should play slower until acclimated.  That didn’t initially strike me as wise nor did it make much sense to me,  but later I would discover the accuracy and helpfulness of his advice.

God has some advice for his people.  First, understand the context.  Assyria, with its capital city of Nineveh, was a pain in the side of Israel.  Their cruelty was unparalleled in that day.  The northern nation of Israel, who retained the nation’s original name, would eventually go into captivity at the hands of the Assyrians, a ruthless people.  Israel would never recover.  Don’t forget that Jonah was sent to Nineveh to invite them to repent years before Nahum’s writing.  No wonder he balked.  Now, it isn’t repentance being offered Nineveh.  Instead, comfort is being offered God’s people based on the impending destruction of this bitter empire whose capital is Nineveh.  But presently, things weren’t good for the people of God.  Suffering had been immense.  Their nation, capital city and temple lying in ruin.  Into this context, Nahum shows up with the words of God.  God is angry.  Nineveh is about to get what they deserve.  Good news. But in the middle of the current conditions, this is God’s seemingly backward advice to his people:  Keep your feasts! (v15)

What does it mean to keep your feasts?  What is Nahum talking about?  Exodus 23 tells us that 3 times a year the people of God were to gather for a feast.  In fact, we read identical words in 23:14)  Three times a year you shall keep a feast to me, says the Lord.  But Lord, one might protest, don’t you see what we see?  Don’t you know how hard life is right now?  We’ve lost our nation and our identity and you want us to celebrate?

Ethyl Kennedy contacted the maker of the frisbee back in the ‘60s hoping to ship some of those new toys to Angola and a particular orphanage with which she had worked.  The frisbees arrived and later Mrs. Kennedy received a thank you note:  We are grateful for the plastic plates.  The kids use them all the time.  By the way, did you know that they make an interesting toy as well?  The ways of God are upside down and backward to the ways of man.  God makes little sense to us.  He warned us through Isaiah that this would be the case:  My thoughts are not your thoughts neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.

Keep your feasts when things are bad, really bad?  Why?

First consider this:  when things are bad, perhaps that is all the more reason to celebrate.  I am not encouraging denial.  But understand that when we celebrate in this life we are not ultimately celebrating what is now but rather what is to come!  Every celebration now, if properly understood, is but a foreshadowing of a greater celebration yet to come.  For example, when we celebrate a good meal with family and friends, it points to a day when we will partake of a banquet without concern for our waistlines and with the absence of tensions big or small with those we eat.  When we celebrate a marriage or an anniversary, we are ultimately celebrating a day when we will be united with Christ in oneness as it was intended from the beginning.  When we gather on a Sunday to celebrate God and what He has done, it is a dress rehearsal for the grand celebration depicted in Revelation.  And when we celebrate a graduation or a ritual marking the entrance into adulthood or some deeper level of maturity, we celebrate the day when we will be fully mature in Christ!  Keep your feasts, because your celebrations point forward with great hope!

One more idea that adds a beauty to this truth.  Did you know that when the seamstresses were given the instructions for the making of the high priestly garments, the collar was to be double-stitched?  Why?  The one privilege belonging solely to the high priest was entrance into the presence of God and in the presence of God there is never a reason to tear your robe, as many freely did in times of sorrow and despair (see Job or Jacob as an example).  But not the high priest.  With the privilege of being in God’s presence, he was never to tear his robe because the ultimate reality is never despair.  It is always hope.  Now, we are all priests.  We remind each other that there is never a reason to lose hope.  God is in our midst.  God is inside of us.  Don’t lose hope.  Keep your feasts!  Things will end well.  That is a promise.  And the enemy that has plagued your heart (what is it for you?) will someday be destroyed and it will never again rise up and threaten your well-being.

And so the passage ends with the messenger bounding from mountain top to mountain top announcing the good news that peace is on the way.  Isaiah records nearly the exact same words in chapter 52 of his prophecy except there is one additional thought worth capturing. To conclude the good news he says, Our God reigns.  Indeed He does, despite what we see or are experiencing at any moment and because He reigns, we are invited, commanded to celebrate:  Keep your feasts! 

Patience and peace to you,

Kent

The Empowering Nature of Grief

I have been thinking a bit about a particular topic that comes hard for me.  John Eldridge in his book, The Journey of Desire, suggested that every person must add two disciplines to everyday life in order to maintain a vibrant faith.  The first one made sense.  The second was foreign.   First, he suggested that we must worship.  We could dialogue about what exactly constitutes worship but that is a topic for another day.  The second discipline he proposed was grief.  Did that surprise you?  I recall when I read it years ago being caught off guard.  I don’t see or hear much about grief in our culture unless we are exposed on the nightly news to the parents or friends of someone recently murdered.  Creating room for grief in our worship is mostly a foreign concept. 

I wonder if there might be something empowering about grieving?  Here is what makes me think that perhaps there is.  If you read or recall what I wrote in the last missive, there was a point in the days of Haggai and Zechariah where the people of God had stopped doing what God had originally called them to do.  They had returned from captivity under the leadership of Zerubbabel, their express purpose being to rebuild the temple.  Only the foundation had been laid when the work stalled.  The leadership, along with the people, had met opposition, and now they were living each man for himself chasing what we now describe as the "American dream.”  So when God sends these two prophets to reignite the work, one of his motivational strategies is to gather all those who had seen the temple in its glory days and ask them what they see presently.  Talk about disheartening.  "Remember how it used to be," says God.  “Look at it now,” as it lie in ruins.  This doesn't strike me as a very productive team-building activity.  It also doesn't strike me as a modern day strategy to motivate people.  I wonder what emotion those elders felt as they stood there looking out across their desecrated city and defunct temple?  Might God’s request of them to look at the current condition have produced grief?  Have you ever gone back to where you grew up only to see your old house or high school or another significant place either gone or decrepit?  Imagine if you were gone for two weeks on vacation and returned to find your beautiful home, in which so many memories were created, burned to the ground.  Grief might rapidly emerge to the surface of your heart and mind.  Why would God want his people to experience grief?

Perhaps to answer that question we should go back to a moment in time when we get a glimpse into the heart of God.  You know the story well, I suspect, one learned early in your Sunday School days if you were fortunate enough to experience those days.  I am talking about the story of Noah in Genesis 6.  Here is what we read about the conditions on earth at that time:  the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.  And the Lord was sorry that he had made man on the earth and it grieved him to his heart.  I am not sure grief is something we readily attribute to God perhaps because He seems so removed or perhaps we don’t envision Him as emotional.  To call someone “emotional” is, in our culture, to label him or her as essentially weak or unstable.  But in one of if not the first glimpse into the heart of God, we see him as quite personal:  He is grieving.  And the next thing we see God contemplating is the destruction of the human race because things are bad, really bad.  Often times, anger is a parallel emotion with grief.  We want someone to pay.  We want to do something about what is causing the grief so that we never have to experience it again.  Maybe the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, implying that we are like God.  It is in our DNA as image-bearers to hate what is wrong and to want to do something about it.  We even want someone to pay.  But where we are unlike God is in that we would stop there. We might also not really get to the root of the problem as God does and will.  We would be satisfied with simply seeking revenge or destroying what is causing the pain.  But not so with God.  What I find fascinating in this story is that right after the thought of destroying mankind because of the prevalent nature of wickedness, we are introduced to the story of Noah.  Why is that potentially significant?  Because Noah represents God’s salvation.  The deepest reality of our God’s heart is not his wrath but rather his desire to redeem and save.  And throughout the biblical story, God is repeatedly weaving a redemptive thread amidst the chaos of our lives when we would settle for judgment and destruction as long as its not toward me.

So, here is what I wonder:  does grief allow, if permitted, a person to go past their rage and desire to destroy to discover something deeper and more alive in the heart?  I know that when I encounter, as I did this past week, the repeated stories of life's brokenness, especially in a concentrated measure, I can so easily either want to turn my head and try to avoid feeling how bad things are, living then for pleasure and relief, OR, grow angry and cynical and do violence in my attempt to make things work.  Might there be a third option, one not easy to move toward because it leaves us feeling vulnerable and powerless?  Grieving would be the third and more difficult option to embrace.  And I believe that as I grieve, I might cry out to God in dependence, discovering a humility that then allows me to lean into God, trust Him, and then join Him in bringing life where I can while leaving the rest to Him.

Might there be a NT counterpart to this OT story of God grieving?  I would argue for John 11 and the story of Lazarus.  We are told twice that Jesus was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled.  The word for “troubled” represents a deep rage over how things are.  I think he felt a grief even though he knew that he was about to resurrect His friend.  He saw and experienced all that was wrong in this world:  the confusion of the disciples; the disappointment and anger of the sisters toward Him; the disbelief of the crowd about who He was; and the death of His good friend, Lazarus.  He wept.  He grieved.  And then He set out to breathe life back into a man’s body but perhaps even more importantly, into the hearts of those around Him who witnessed the event.  Might His grief have precipitated the ability to move freely toward the situation at hand with life instead of death?  Did His grief help free His heart?  Perhaps.

God invites us to be like Jesus.  His Spirit is working to make us like Jesus.  And Isaiah described Jesus as a man acquainted with suffering and grief.  The biblical narrative is full of grief, be it the psalms, a book of Lament or the stories of people like us who suffered and then grieved.  We must take our grief to God or we will do violence to others.  We must ask Him to help us learn to grieve well because He was and is quite acquainted with it.  And we must believe, believe deeply that grief really is an important part of our faith journey, a integral part of persevering on this long obedience in the same direction.  Help us Lord, to slow down and create space for our grief.

Patience and peace to each of you, for our days of grieving are numbered.

Kent

Losing hope, Empty Lives

Have you ever lost hope?  I can think of someone for whom I wanted more for years and in my heart, I gave up.  I lost hope based on their choices and the lack of evidence that God was working in his heart.  And then, out of nowhere—after years, perhaps as many as 20—God broke through.  He had been up to something all along that I couldn’t see.  I can also think of a few times that I have lost hope with change in my own life.  And then, at a superficial level, I can recall occasions when I gave up hope while participating in an athletic contest or while viewing my favorite sports team.  Of course, we love it when we lose hope in our team, possibly even walking away from the game only to learn later that they came back and won!  Or maybe we hung in there, bored and hopeless, never dreaming a comeback was on the horizon.

We are on the “eve” of Pentecost Sunday where we celebrate the greatest ongoing gift God gave to us.  I have to confess:  I love the Holy Spirit!  I am so grateful for this precious gift from God.  I never grew up with much of an understanding of who He is or what His work is.  We feared the Spirit, or perhaps more accurately, we feared people’s understanding of what it meant to have the Spirit.  Not anymore. Not for me. I would be lost without him. I can’t always say I know what is of Him but sometimes I sense his Voice or his nudges.  I believe he wants to help me day-to-day in conversations and in choices that I make.  I can identify a couple of "big" times when I have felt His strong guidance and I can surmise a few times, actually more than a few, when I have sensed his gentle leading whether while listening to someone or writing.  Jesus had such confidence in the Spirit’s work that He felt comfortable leaving his band of fearful, rag-tag disciples to the Spirit's care/guidance.  But, back to the question, only asked differently this time:  what makes us lose hope?

In Haggai’s day, I think hopeless describes the people of God.  They have just returned from the Babylonian captivity.  Work on the temple had begun, I expect with vision and energy and excitement, only now it had stalled.  They had met opposition.  Perhaps they were weary.  Maybe they thought it would move along much quicker than it was.  Strange, isn’t it, that when God commissions us to do something, you would think that it would go well?  You would think that He would want it to go well?  Often, it doesn’t.  We meet opposition like the Jews did.  So, the people lost hope and when they did, they turned inward.  That alone is a pattern worth pondering.  We find them living for themselves in Haggai chapter 1.  Perhaps they are plagued by the question, “What’s the use?”  Into this context, the Lord God sends Haggai.  He speaks on God’s behalf: “Is it a time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses, while this house lies in ruin? Now therefore, thus says the Lord of hosts: Consider your ways. You have sown much and harvested little.  You eat but you never have enough; you drink, but you never have your fill.  You clothe yourselves, but no one is warm.  And he who earns wages does so to put them into a bag with holes.  Did you hear God's delineation of the cycle of emptiness?  More importantly, do we recognize it in our own lives?  We chase after what we think is life but it never satisfies.  It is never enough.  Twice, God exhorts the people to “Consider their ways!”  I wonder where I have lost hope and turned to the things of this life to give me meaning?  Where I am hoarding my money or refusing to invest my energy because it doesn’t seem worth it?  From whom am I withholding my heart because I have been hurt and am unwilling to open up again?  Where has opposition beaten me down that I have forgotten my true calling?

Haggai’s words do the trick.  We are told the people feared the Lord.  They took seriously what God was asking of them.  And they got back to work, back to the calling God had on their lives because the Spirit stirred them to do so.  The Spirit was at work.  From Haggai’s contemporary, Zechariah, we read that the work of rebuilding the temple would get done not by might and not by power but by the Spirit.  We don’t make things happen by our great scheming or by our heroic efforts.  Anything that truly matters happens because the Spirit makes it happen and if we don’t understand that, we are in grave danger of interfering with God by making it about ourselves, thinking it is a result of who I am.  O so subtle.  O so dangerous!

Notice something in the text of Haggai’s words.  If you ask me, God has a terrible marketing strategy.  He calls together what is essentially the elders, those who saw the “glory days”, as we like to call them.  He makes them look at the present condition of their surroundings.  Terribly discouraging.  Far from what they once knew.  A rather demoralizing exercise in futility from my perspective.  Why would God do that?  What does he hope to accomplish by rubbing their noses in how bad things are?  Perhaps the Lord knows our propensity toward denial.  Perhaps He does want them to see just how bad it really is.  Is there a lesson in that for us as it pertains to our broken lives, the mess in us and around us?  Two things strike me from this odd strategy on God’s part.  First, perhaps seeing how bad it is  is actually a stroke of genius because when we are pained by something that is beyond our ability to fix, something that matters to us deeply, we actually have an opportunity to acknowledge what is most profoundly true about our condition:  we are dependent!  We need God for anything good to happen!  We are forced to either grow calloused and turn away, living for ourselves and the emptiness it creates, OR, we can cry out to Him for help.  Secondly, as we cry out, we come to the freeing realization that if anything good is going to happen, it will happen not by our efforts but by the efforts of God’s Spirit.  And that is exactly what happened.  Haggai says to the the governor (Zerubbabel) and the high priest (Joshua), and to the people, Work!  Work, for I am with you and My Spirit is in your midst.  Get back to your true calling, which is not to live for our own comfort or our own agenda, or for our own recognition.  Live for the calling that I (God) have placed upon your lives.  Forsake the temptation to make your own smaller story the biggest story and instead, join what I am doing.  Link your story to mine and believe that my Spirit is working despite what you see and what you sometimes feel.

There's really never a reason to lose hope.  Of course, we do from time to time and when we do, may we remember Haggai and Zechariah’s words.  May God use others to lift up our heads to see that something is just over the horizon that we cannot see, that there is always hope because the Spirit of God is always working, never passive, working to make our hearts His temple where He can more fully dwell.  We can take the pressure off ourselves and realize it is His work, the Spirit’s work and we can celebrate this Sunday, Pentecost Sunday, that very truth…and be grateful for this incredible gift given to each of us who follow Jesus.

Peace and patience to you,

Kent