Agonizing Decisions: Aftermath

I wanted to return to the story I had shared in two parts about Sarah’s friend who was on the verge of eviction from his apartment, and our wrestling with what to do. Our God is good, and always working, and even added to our Easter morning joy. I was in Easter services when my phone started buzzing with messages from him. He wrote:

“[…] In the midst of getting my phone fixed, finding a place to go, getting a job and all the other day to day things of life I just wasn’t able to find the words, heart or time to give you all the response you deserve. First I’d like to say, THANK YOU. Thank you so much for even considering things as seriously as you all did. I appreciate the efforts made and everything you all did to help me. Even though your answer was no, you all still made sure to give me other resources and information doing literally all you could do from your end and that means a lot because there’s very few people that have known me my whole life that will do the same. So, thank you.”

He went on to say that he’s found a place, sharing a room with a friend, and he’s found a job, working in a retail store, so he now has money coming in and is beginning to turn his life around.

God is at work in even the situations we think are hopeless. God is at work if we would just get out of his way and let him–if we would listen for where he is leading us. I am beyond grateful to hear Sarah’s friend is not on the streets, he’s safe, and he’s beginning to put things in order.  I give God all the credit for everything he’s done, and will do, to bring this young man through. And I have to give him the fist-bump for nudging him to reach out to us on Easter morning–the day love broke through ALL of the darkness and gave us the source of all our hope. Ours is an incredible God!

Contrasts

Two very different scenes this week that nonetheless come together.

Scene One: It snowed over the weekend, starting Saturday night and through Sunday evening, with about five inches of snow here at the house. (See the picture from the dining room into the back yard.) Roads were pretty slick Sunday night, but by Monday enough plows had been through that roads were better, and I headed out to do some errands.

As I drove, I noticed how postcard-perfect the roadside scenes were. The sky was a soft shade of light blue that contrasted beautifully against the snow-covered landscape. The trees themselves were frosted with caps of snow on the branches; a string of evergreens looked like a Christmas tree forest, glistening under the winter sun. Nearby our house is a great set of sledding hills, and we can hear the shrieks of delighted children. But yet, muffled: I love walking in the snow, as it dampens sound and makes everything quieter, hushed, more peaceful. It truly was a magnificent scene, and gave my heart cause to praise God the Creator for this tremendous gift.

Scene Two: Heartbreak. Our daughter had been pursuing a course of action academically that was not working out for her. It had been her hope to succeed at this new school, and yet her health is not such that she can achieve what she needs to achieve. And so she had to come to the point of deciding what to do: to try to push on, or to step out.

Every parent fiercely wants the best for their child, and every parent’s heart breaks when their child can’t get what they want. I’m no different, and so I ache for her to have to make a difficult decision.

And in the midst of it, the Father’s heart is breaking as well, I am sure. Two thoughts come to mind. First is the beauty of the snowy scene, and how it shows the magnificence of God. Look, he is saying: you’re right to feel for your child. But look around you, and see how much I love you too. I love you enough to give you this entire creation to enjoy, and it’s beautiful. And I love you enough to give you this gift even though you don’t deserve it. Receive my gift; lift your head, stop focusing on your own troubles and look at the magnificence I have for you.

And second: Remember the promises God makes throughout history.

Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid, do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go. (Joshua 1:9)

So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand. (Isaiah 41:10)

I can do all things through Christ, who gives me strength. (Philippians 4:13)

Our daughter’s troubles will pass. There is hope. And we see that hope in the love of God, reflected in the beauty of his creation on a snowy January day. Come, Lord Jesus, fill the hearts of your faithful, and wrap us in your love.

This. I Wanna Do THIS.

I’ve started readings for one of my fall classes, CD 501 Vocation of Ministry–which looks like it will be a chance for us to push into what being in full-time ministry will be all about. (“You sure you wanna do this?”) One of the books is Stephen Seamands’ Ministry in the Image of God, and I just have to quote from his Chapter 4, on “Glad Surrender.” In it, Seamands himself quotes from Hannah Hurnard’s Hinds’ Feet on High Places. Check this out.

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In the story, Much-Afraid is puzzled when she learns that she is ascending to the High Places not to remain there forever but so she can descend back into the Valley of Humiliation from which she has fled. At the beginning of her journey with the Shepherd, as they cross a swift stream running through the valley, he bids her listen to the words being sung by the rushing water: “Come, oh come! Let us away–Lower, lower, every day…From the heights we leap and flow, To the valleys sown below, Sweetest urge and sweetest will, To go lower, lower still.”

The water sings joyfully as it hurries down to the lowest place, yet the Shepherd is calling Much-Afraid to ascend to the High Places. It seems contradictory, so Much-Afraid asks what it means. “The High Places,” the Shepherd explains, “are the starting places for the journey down to the lowest place in the world. When you have hinds’ feet and can go ‘leaping on the mountains and skipping on the hills,’ you will be able, as I am, to run down from the heights in gladdest self-giving and then go up to the mountains again […] for it is only on the High Places of Love that anyone can receive the power to pour themselves in an utter abandonment of self-giving.” At this point in the journey, however, Much-Afraid is perplexed by the Shepherd’s answer.

Later, though, when they arrive at the borderland of the High Places, she begins to understand. Standing before the towering cliffs still to be scaled, the Shepherd has Much-Afraid look up at the mighty waterfall flowing down from the High Places. When she does, she is awed by the tremendous height of the rocky lip over which the water cascades down and the deafening noise as it crashes down onto the rocks at the foot of the fall. Never has she seen anything so majestic or terrifyingly lovely. Once again, as in the valley, she hears the waters singing, “From the heights we leap and go, To the valleys down below, Always answering to the call, To the lowest place of all.”

To Much-Afraid the fall of the mighty waters is both beautiful and terrible. She can hardly bear to watch the water cast itself down from the heights above only to be shattered on the rocks beneath. Sensing her apprehension, the Shepherd urges her to look more closely. “Let your eye follow just one part of the water from the moment when it leaps over the edge until it reaches the bottom.”

As she does, she gasps in wonder. Once over the edge, the waters were like winged things, alive with joy, so utterly abandoned to the ecstasy of giving themselves that she could have almost supposed that she was looking at a host of angels floating down on rainbow wings, singing with rapture as they went. To the water this was the loveliest, most glorious movement in the world. And its joy didn’t end when it broke upon the rocks below. In fact, the lower the water went, the lighter and more exuberant it became. A rushing torrent, it swirled triumphantly around the rocks and then flowed downward, lower and lower, around and over every obstacle in its way.

As the Shepherd explains, “At first sight the leap does look terrible […] but as you can see, the water itself finds no terror in it, no moment of hesitation or shrinking, only joy unspeakable and full of glory, because it is the movement natural to it. Self-giving is its life. It has only one desire, to go down and down and give itself with no reserve or holding back of any kind. You can see that as it obeys that glorious urge the obstacles which look so terrifying are perfectly harmless, and indeed only add to the joy and glory of the movement.”

Soon Much-Afraid discovers firsthand what this means. After she ascends to the High Places and is given a new name (Grace and Glory), compassion for those in the Valley of Humiliation wells up within her. They are so fearful and bound; she longs to tell them how the Bridegroom-King can free them as he freed her.

As she rises to go down into the Valley, she sees the great waterfall and hears the song again, “From the heights we leap and flow, To the valleys down below, Sweetest urge and sweetest will, To go lower, lower still.” Now she fully understands. She has been brought by the King to the High Places so that she too can pour herself out in joyful abandonment. The thought of being made one with the great fall of many waters filled her heart with ecstasy and with a rapturous joy beyond power to express. She, too, at last was to go down with them, pouring herself forth in love’s abandonment of self-giving. “He brought me to the heights just for this,” she whispered to herself, and then looked at him and nodded.

What Much-Afraid once considered terrible, love’s abandonment in self-giving, has become to her altogether lovely, a fountain of unspeakable joy. What she has shrunk away from for fear of losing herself, she now gladly embraces as the grand purpose of her existence.

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This is at least the third time I’ve read this, and it’s moved me deeply each time I do. In fact, this passage was part of one of the more powerful experiences of God that I’ve had in the past year. I read this for the first time over lunch in my office at work, tears streaming down my face. I felt two things at the same time. I felt the desire to join the water “to go lower, lower still.” And I felt more affirmed in my path than in practically anything else this year: that yes, this is what I am calling you to do; that it will be all right even though it might look scary sometimes; that this is “the grand purpose of [my] existence.”

I can’t say I’m ready to do this, and at the same time, I don’t think anyone ever can. But the rivulets are forming up. They are flowing into trickles, then into tiny streams, then on into a great river that rushes to the edge and off, abandoning all it knows for the ecstasy of the flight, and the privilege of going lower, lower still. Come along for the ride.

Wait A Minute…*We* Win?

In all my celebrating about the Astros amazing World Series win (yes, I’m wearing my “World Series Champs 2017” Astros logo hat even as I write this, why do you ask?), I’ve noticed something about the conversations people have with me, and I think it betrays a little something about how readily we get caught up in The World instead of The Kingdom.

I’ve lost track of how many times I heard some variation of the following addressed to me, since Game 7:

  • “Congratulations on your win!”
  • “You guys had a phenomenal team this year.”
  • “You should celebrate, you had a great Series!”

Notice anything? I’m being addressed as part of the collective “you” of “the Houston Astros,” as if I personally had anything to do with their win, was personally part of a phenomenal team, or personally had a great Series. I’ve had to catch myself often, instead of saying “Yeah, we had a great game,” I have to remember that “they” had a great game, and I got to watch. Sure, I’m a fan, and have been so for four decades. (Ugh.) But I have never had the privilege of being part of the Astros’ roster.

For years, smarter people than I have written about the science and the psychology behind fans’ identification with their teams. Fans of teams can become over-the-top exuberant when they win, or literally unable to go to work the next morning after a tough loss. It becomes part of some people’s identity as much as their nationality, their heritage, their…faith?

Huh.

See, there’s where I think The World is at play. By identifying so closely with a team that we address each other as if we were actually part of the squad, we do two things wrong. First, we run a risk of placing something ahead of God. And I’m not just talking about skipping church to watch the Big Game (like the Simpsons did). If I put my hopes in a baseball team, and the quality of my next day or days depends on the outcome of a game…then I’ve lost sight of God.

Second, by allowing or encouraging the notion that somehow I was part of the reason the team won, then I ascribe to myself a role I just didn’t have. (I certainly didn’t hit the double, three pitches in to the start of Game 7, that started the win for the Astros. Pretty sure that was George Springer.) When I do that, I forget about the gifts and graces God has uniquely given me, and I try to lay claim to ones that I most assuredly don’t have. God gave the men of the Astros–and yes, the Dodgers–some amazing skills, to be sure. And I honor that. But he also blessed me with some pretty cool ones, ones they may not have. I should be celebrating my own gifts and my own blessings from God, instead of trying to lay claim, even vicariously, to those of others.

This might seem a little “out there.” So please understand, I’m in no way saying that we shouldn’t be fans of a sports team if we’re to be Christians. Don’t get me wrong. Instead, what I’m trying to say is, we need to keep perspective in all our dealings with The World, so that we don’t get lulled or drawn into it, even by something as innocuous as the language we use to describe a World Series win. The Tempter would like nothing more than for us to puff ourselves up falsely, to lay claim to something that isn’t ours, so that we lose sight of the claim that really is ours–the claim on eternal life by staying rooted in Christ.

Because when it comes right down to it, the only “we win” we can claim is the biggest win of all–victory over the grave. And that’s worth keeping in front of us, even after a great Astros victory.

“Can You Really Be Christian and Support This Regime?”

“Do not take advantage of foreigners who live among you in your land. Treat them like native-born Israelites, and love them as you love yourself. Remember that you were once foreigners living in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 19:33-34)

You might not have noticed it, but the recent change in Administration in the United States has occasioned a little bit of comment on social media. I know, shocking, right?

Recently, a non-Christian friend of mine posted this question on social media. He quoted Leviticus 19:33-34 and asked (in part), “Christian friends – what do you think about this? Can you really be Christian and support this regime?” I was struck by the genuineness of his question. He genuinely seemed to be coming from a place of trying to understand Scripture and what Jesus would have taught, instead of merely trying to make a political point. In hopes of meeting him at his place of honest searching, I tried to respond: what would be a Christian response to that? Here’s a slightly expanded version of what I told him.

I start from a place of affirming that Christ came to call humanity back to a full relationship with God, and that through grace and his death on the cross, the path back to God is open again for you, me, and anyone else to choose it.

Nowhere in what I just said–indeed nowhere in the Gospels–do we see Christ coming for the Republican party, or for anything having to do with temporal political power. In fact, he taught in Mark 12:13-17 that we’re to render appropriately to the powers that be, but that’s not the same thing as his core message of repentance and the kingdom of God–not at all. And so I as a Christian should obey the laws of my country, but my focus needs to be on God. I do that in part by seeing the essential humanity in everyone, the trace of “let us therefore make humanity in our image,” that started so long ago.

Changing my focus to God means seeing, honoring, respecting all of humanity, without regard to immigration status. But it’s essential to remember that at its heart, Christianity isn’t a call into politics, in either direction. Instead it’s a call back into holiness, back into one-ness with God the Father, who created all that we are. Part of what confused the Hebrew people of the time of Jesus was that they were expecting a political messiah, one who would demolish the Roman state and institute a new world order in political terms. Jesus came to open the door to a new world, but it wasn’t the one we were expecting: it wasn’t a political door, but a spiritual one. There’s a distinction that needs to be made between the two.

And so, Christ came for everyone. He came for me, he came for you, and he came for the immigrant, with or without papers. He came because we are of absolutely incalculable worth to the Father, and that same God who bemoans our human weaknesses still loves us enough to send his son to die for us. That’s the Christian message, of hope and love for all humanity. That’s what Christ still speaks into the current morass: not preferring one party over another, but honoring the institutions that exist while working to save lives, one at a time, for the Kingdom.