Remember my affliction and my wandering, the wormwood and bitterness. Surely my soul remembers and is bowed down within me. This I recall to my mind, therefore I have hope. (Lamentations 3:19-21)
Our souls do remember and they are either bowed down or bowed up. Experiences are suspended in our memories and exposed to our wills where they become either roots of bitterness or sources of hope. Wormwood and bitterness are formidable enemies of the human spirit. They daily crouch at the door of every human life with devouring intent. The great men and women in scripture always prevailed in hope which was established as they walked out their days with hearts bowed down.
What does a bowed down heart look like? This might evoke images of one overly submitted to the inevitability of trial upon divinely appointed trial, one shoe dropping after the other, as though life is the gauntlet designed by God to bend our stiff necks in the right direction. From experience, I am convinced this orientation to life with God betrays wormwood’s infiltration. This soul is remembering its lot as a fallen creature and agreeing with Solomon, “All of life is futility and striving after the wind.” Solomon may have been the wisest man on earth; John the Baptist may have been the greatest of all men, but the very least of God’s reborn sons and daughters have legitimate claims on hope neither of these persons enjoyed.
Those in whom the Spirit has taken up residence (and is being allowed to express Himself) have an advantage these men did not enjoy. The Spirit always points to the Father and the Son. When the Spirit is allowed to do this, futility (wormwood’s claims) are undermined. Even if it seems we are wandering, our hand is being held by God. Those who persevere in life accumulate memories verifying God’s presence in their lives and they proclaim;
The Lord‘s lovingkindnesses indeed never cease, for His compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness. (Lamentations 3:22-23)
I am awaiting GTN’s (God’s Television Network) broadcast where saints whose chairs or beds are wheeled to the microphone. They will give their account of the hope that is within them, after the proverbial shoe has inexplicably fallen. Perhaps a spiritual Giraldo Rivera will arise, taking the mic to places where free markets have not insulated souls from exposure to the harshness of life. Maybe there, he will find saints who have walked with Jesus, in a vacuum of material blessing, who will share with the world;
“The Lord is my portion, therefore I have hope in Him.” (Lamentations 3:24)
The heart that is bowed down looks more like a well-love child’s presumptuous heart. It does not instinctively presume the worst. It looks to its parent with innocence, anticipating good. The parent is the child’s true portion. The child’s hope rests with this person, whatever it encounters.
Father, you are our ultimate good in the presence of all life’s variables. Even when our grip fails, we discover your mercies are never ending. Each new day, may we keep wormwood at bay with our thanksgiving for Your great faithfulness. You Lord are our portion and cup. May our hearts be satiated in You. May they live to tell. Amen.
John got it, didn’t he?
For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. (John 3:16)
The themes of Love and Life resonate powerfully in his gospel:
God has sent His only begotten Son into the world, as the propitiation for our sins, so that we might live through Him… We have seen and testify that the Father has sent the Son to be the Savior of the world. Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. (from 1 John 4:9, 14-15)
But is John 3:16 and the doctrine of propitiation the extent of John’s legacy? By no means. Even before John’s gospel was assembled, he had become an intimate friend of God Incarnate, having rested his head on his breast. The revelation that was entrusted to John is much fuller than simply justification and assurance of life after death. John’s breaking news was that the God of the Old Testament (who was known for his judgements) is incredibly approachable and friendly. Although he understood salvation as well as anyone, John’s legacy to the church is so much more than John 3:16. It is about abiding in a transformational love that was to be the fruit of salvation and the credibility of the gospel. Listen:
Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. By this the love of God was manifested in us. We have come to know and have believed the love which God has for us. God is love, and the one who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. (from John 4:7,9 and 16)
John understood the full gospel. He got it. But he raises a serious question; have others actually got it when they exhibit no evidence of transformational love? He is saying if we’ve got it—really got it—loving our brothers and sisters will be the evidence. He’s saying, if we are not loving one another, we don’t have it.
The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love… Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another… If someone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen. (from 1 John 4:8,11 and 20)
John is saying (indirectly) that those who name the name of Jesus, who claim to have it, but don’t, are one of the major reasons (perhaps the greatest one) why others have not gotten it; essentially, they’ve never seen it. The following is from N.T. Wright’s commentary on this passage:
Only today I was talking to someone who, commenting gloomily on various experiences of actual church life, suggested that churches should have a ‘danger’ sign outside, warning people to expect nasty, gossipy, snide conversation and behavior if they came in. That sadly has always been a reality in church life. That is why, from Paul onwards, Christian writers have been at pains to insist that it should not be like that with us. The rule of love, I say again, is not an option. It is the very essence of what we are about. If this means we need some new reformation, so be it.
Wright goes on to say this:
In John’s prologue he says that “Nobody has ever seen God. The only begotten God, who is intimately close to the Father – he has brought him to light.” The meaning of that statement is striking; we don’t really know who ‘God’ is – until we see it revealed in the life of Christians. Until, that is, ‘his love is completed in us.’ What God launched decisively in Jesus, he wants to complete in and through us. As Jesus unveiled God before a surprised and unready world, so must we. Love is that important.
Is this even doable, I ask? Yes, answers Wright—for one reason:
He has given us of His Spirit. We can love, because He first loved us. We can obey his command to love our brothers not because we loved God, but because He first has loved us.
Wright proposed a reformation based on John’s declaration that “just as He (Christ) is, so are we within this world” and the reality that “love is a symptom of what Christianity is all about.” He believes that “Love incarnate must be the badge that the Christian community wears, the sign not only of who they are but of who their God is.”
I humbly echo Mr. Wright’s call for a “new reformation.” In my typical mode of discovery, I stumbled into a reformation a few years ago. I was looking for something I sensed I desperately needed. I chased reformation (or “renewal” or “revival” or whatever you’d like to label it) around the country until I finally came to a place where I prayed something similar in spirit to the prayer I prayed when I first met Jesus Christ. That prayer was essentially, “God I surrender. I’ve got nothing to contribute here but you can have all of me to do with as you like.” My prayer after this intense quest for more was essentially: “Lord, I see you doing things everywhere and in everybody. I’ve got nothing I am aware of to contribute, so I surrender to you. I have no idea how you might do it, but I pray that you would bring revival to my heart. I will wait for you there. I really hope to see you soon.”
God has answered and is answering this prayer. Most of what I write is an account of a fresh hope, which has come about through a process, not through an event (which I would have preferred). Middle with Mystery is my chronicle of that process. I mention my story here because it has been deeply influenced by John’s comments regarding fear.
By this, love is perfected with us, so that we may have confidence in the day of judgment; because as He is, so also are we in this world. There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love. (from John 4:17-18)
Father, may your love break through our defenses and establish itself, for us to enjoy, for the world to witness. Amen.
“For the mountains may be removed and the hills may shake, but My lovingkindness will not be removed from you, and My covenant of peace will not be shaken,” Says the Lord who has compassion on you. (Isaiah 54:10)
As I lay in the hospital, alone, feeling crummy, unable to sleep, old familiar voices came a hunting. Like a pack of coyotes, skulking about, they were following the scent of fear which they had always evoked; “you are a rebellious loner, you do not belong; you are in deep left field; you are not loved and, you won’t be around much longer.” Lies, all lies, but not incapable of eliciting their desired response – fear.
“No weapon that is formed against you will prosper; and every tongue that accuses you in judgment you will condemn. This is the heritage of the servants of the Lord, and their vindication is from Me,” declares the Lord. (Isaiah 54:17)
While I had not really thought about it in the moment, I responded to these fear-sniffing predators by condemning their judgements. For the record, I did not push the ejecto-button on my hospital bed (I’m sure it had one), pop out, marching around making military declarations. It was my heritage, as a servant of the Lord, to simply acknowledge reality in my heart, where Christ lives. While I was physically meek as a kitten I still had enough spiritual muster to say, “no” to these voices.
My advanced military response looked more like rolling out of bed and creaking over to my laptop, so I could type reality out as I knew it to be, in my spirit. I often execute this maneuver within the simplicity of my heart but Wednesday night was a little higher level of warfare. My Thursday MwM post was a counterpunch to the accusations and lies that were stalking me. I wasn’t going to pull any punches. Condemnation is horrible place. I have tasted freedom. I cannot go back.
There is intentionality in relationship and in warfare. My hills felt shaken and my mountain seemed like they might be removed so, in the heat of the battle, I redoubled my focus on this week’s theme, “Loved By God” and dove into Zephaniah 3:14-20. Reality (represented in scripture) says God’s lovingkindness will not be removed from me. His covenant of peace will not be shaken!
Father, thank you that even if I were unconscious and incapable of exercising my will, you would have been present, interceding for me. May we acquire Thy Lovingkindensss as a fixed reference point on our spiritual compasses. Vindicate us oh Lord. Amen.
In the sentence following his introduction, Zephaniah prophecies annihilation. After providing two and half chapters of vivid detail of this erasure of life, God apparently sends out a change order on the prophetic bandwidth Zephaniah is monitoring. That is where our passage begins. However to appreciate the magnitude of the change, allow me to offer some highlights of God’s previous prophetic communique …
“I will completely remove all things from the face of the earth. I will remove man and beast; I will cut off man from the face of the earth,” declares the Lord. God has consecrated His guests (with punishment)… I will punish (them) … (I repeat) I will punish (them) … There will be a cry, a wail and a loud crash. (They) will be silenced. A day of clouds and thick darkness, wrath, trouble, distress, destruction, desolation, darkness and gloom (is imminent). (Let me repeat myself) God will make a complete end, indeed a terrifying one, of all the inhabitants of the earth. (parenthesis mine)
When I came to Christ the only crash I was aware of was His Love literally crashing into my heart with a resounding pronouncement of His love for me as my Father. My heart had known darkness. When I met Christ, I may have even been close to gnashing my teeth. He invaded my darkness, undermining my gloom. He rescued me out of self destruction. My desolation had ended. My adoption and sonship had begun. I had become a son of God. The Living God had become my Father.
You see, my conception of God was never flavored by the ancient Jewish mindset. In fact, in my gentile audacity, I have presumed that 100% of that fiery wrath (which I no doubt deserved) was absorbed in Jesus Christ upon the cross.
100% means I will not be looking back to the Old Testament to modify my definition of Father or alter the way in which I relate to Him. I see no representative in the New Testament doing this. Why should I? I’m blown away that even while I was a gentile sinner Christ died for me. I’m not looking back. Christ is the fulfillment of the Law for me. What the Jews celebrate in feasts and festivals, I have in each successive moment in Christ. Christ alone is my sufficiency. He has completely overfilled my cup and in every way I am satisfied in Him, alone.
As a believer (only a few months old) I had a revelation of the majesty of the Lord’s name and when I heard it (and boy did I hear it) it was; “Jesus…Jesus…Jesus” – not Yeshua. The Spirit took into account my gentile-ness and let me hear my Savior’s name in my dialect. Understandably, He will always be “Jesus” to me.
Knowing Jesus, I’m sure he will greet me in heaven and say, “Hi. I’m Yeshua.” And I will reply, “And I am Snimuc Ybar (That is an inside joke. Only Daneille, Kent, Rob and Jesus will get it. That’s ok.)
While the words of Zephaniah 3:14-20 were not spoken directly to me, I know they still apply because I know my Father’s heart. Here are a few highlights from our passage which resonate on my Father- frequency. If I do not hear the “Father” (by my definition) in the communique, I disregard the transmission.
Shout for joy! Shout in triumph! Rejoice and exult with all your heart. The Lord has taken away His judgments against you, He has cleared away your enemies. The King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; You will fear disaster no more. Do not be afraid. Do not let your hands fall limp. The Lord your God is in your midst, a victorious warrior. He will exult over you with joy, He will be quiet in His love, He will rejoice over you with shouts of joy.
At the same time, I do not believe for a moment that God has replaced Israel (people of Jewish linage? People with Israeli citizenship?) with gentiles. While I do not know the timing, I believe the above verses and the balance of our passage apply to the blessed nation of Israel (whoever they are).
“I will gather those who grieve about the appointed feasts – They came from you, O Zion; the reproach of exile is a burden on them. Behold, I am going to deal at that time with all your oppressors, I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will turn their shame into praise and renown in all the earth. At that time I will bring you in, even at the time when I gather you together; indeed, I will give you renown and praise among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes,” says the Lord.
Father, I look forward to the day when all your various notes find their chords and all those chords find their place in Your symphony. Until then, may we love each other in way that might validate our claims of Your Life in us. Amen.
I was asked recently what I thought about heaven. I didn’t mean to disregard a wonder of that magnitude, and I do truly look forward to it; I just do not have a very good handle on the what, where or when of it. As I was bungling about for an answer, I realized (right or wrong) that I mostly just lump all the future (including heaven) into my vision of the kingdom of God, which simply put, means that Christ’s reign is forever expanding in all dimensions (especially in willing hearts) and it is good because He is willing and extraordinarily good.
Have you ever known people who, after you get to know them, just flat out surprise you? You get a bit closer and you say, “Wow, I totally misjudged or underestimated you”? In my experience, Jesus has proven to be this person as I have responded (over time) to His invitation to come away with Him. (This also happens to me as I take the time to stop and listen to other’s stories. I am starting to understand that by listening, I am not only honoring my friend but honoring God who is the author of their story. I believe this is one of the hidden gems of the kingdom—our privilege of discovering the beauty of God in each other.)
We often think of our relationships with other humans as horizontal and our relationship with God as vertical. I wonder though; since Jesus said that the things we have done (or haven’t done) to the least of these is the same as having done them to Him, if all relationships are not vertical. Truly, we tread unknowingly on holy ground.
I am my beloved’s and his desire is toward me!
Come, my beloved! Let us go forth into the field,
Let us lodge in the villages. (Song of Solomon 7:10-11)
I have a collection of words that God has been highlighting and connecting; they’ve actually fashioned themselves into a vision with an energy of their own. The definitions of these words have been fueled by experience, but they are all things that began in God’s Word (as best as I can tell) and through His Spirit (in my best assessment). Their composition does not form a doctrinal statement or a systematic theology; they are simply the light I’m following and the voice I’m attending to. I’m trusting (even with my imperfect antennae) that I am being led by The Light and hearing from The Voice. With passionate and poetic expression the Light and Voice collaborate to further extend His kingdom invitation to us;
Let us see whether the vine has budded
And its blossoms have opened,
And whether the pomegranates have bloomed.
There I will give you my love. (Song of Solomon 7:12)
You manly men out there might be protesting now, thinking that this language is overtly feminine and does not apply to the kind of relationship you have with God. Really? Dear brothers in Christ, we need to remind ourselves that whether we are feeling it or not, we are not only members of the Army of God, but also the Bride of Christ. Keep in mind that all forms of love originated in God. We can be both psalmists and swordsmen.
There are things we’ve seen and experienced on earth that I believe God has left as shadowy clues as to what’s ahead. To identify these things we might ask ourselves: what are the things that have awakened longing in me? Mountain vistas? Raging rivers? Athletic achievement? Brilliant art? A lover’s shape or their caress? HGTV? (I jest.) I believe this is why God tells us, through Paul, to dwell only on things that are true, lovely and worthy of praise. These are the things He’s left to prod, direct and sustain us.
Paul knew. I can tell by his language that he had tasted. God let him in on the mysterious secret. We often think of the apostles and other fathers in our faith as VIPs, or as special favorites of God’s. They may have had exalted assignments, but they are not loved or favored above us. I believe they are simply part of the invitation. God gives some (like Paul) more revelation than most and leaves their testimonies as signposts to guide the hungry ones to the Treasure.
The question worth pursuing is; Just how great is the love of God? Here is Paul’s answer:
I’m absolutely convinced that nothing—nothing living or dead, angelic or demonic, today or tomorrow, high or low, thinkable or unthinkable—absolutely nothing can get between us and God’s love because of the way that Jesus our Master has embraced us. (Romans 8:38-39 MSG)
In this kingdom adventure into which we’ve been caught up, God invites us to be with Him—the one Whose love has conquered all, Who has designed the most intense pleasures as hints (mere hints!) of the intensity of His passions for us individually and corporately.
Most approaches to life in Christ include the idea of time alone with God. For example; I was part of The Journey, a discipleship program (boy, does that phrase ever sound gimpy). Let’s instead call The Journey an experience in Christ (yes, “experience” is a better word) which is designed to help us respond to God’s invitation to abide in Him, to take the initial steps in responding to His invitation to go out early…and see what might be blooming—seeking out those things that are true, worthy, lovely and worthy of praise.
It seems that God just wants us to enjoy His nearness. As best I can tell from scripture and experience, that Psalm-139-level intimacy is going on even in spite of us. Whether we are tracking it or not, the lives of His children are intertwined and inseparable from Him. Abiding is simply our acknowledgement and enjoyment of this mystery. Abiding has far more to do with the acknowledgement that something already exists than it does in building something new. If anything is being built, it is simply our ongoing habit of living confidently and gratefully in Christ.
We possess a windfall of Life in Christ—a treasure so vast that its worth cannot be calculated in any earthly coinage. It can only be hinted at—through His Word, in the glory of nature, and in human love (where it is sacrificial and giving). There will be a consummation one day. Perhaps it will be in heaven. I really do not know. But I am certain our enjoyment of it will only be enhanced by our current responses to His invitations to abide in Him. What an amazing adventure! Our hearts can now rehearse, in peace and confidence;
I am my beloved’s, and his desire is toward me!
Father, we have nothing we can hide from You. May we acknowledge our nakedness before You. Therefore, with trembling and anticipation, we willingly give all of ourselves (as best we can) to You. We no longer need to suffer with the ups and downs of who we are, for we are simply Yours. May this reality dawn upon our hearts as brightly as a fresh spring day, shedding light on all the beautiful things You’ve begun and have pledged to finish in our hearts. Lord, You are marvelous in all regards. Indeed, we love You. Amen.
Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand; and we exult in hope of the glory of God. And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us. (Romans 5:1-8)
For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.
This passage provoked the image of a helpless person, defiled and dying being carried along to cruel ends when, at just the right moment, they are snatched away by a superior power. They are somehow equipped with a knowledge that Christ has died for them. It dawns upon them that while they were dying and being carried to destruction Jesus had taken their place.
Here, I picture this Christian entering onto a moving production line. The first station is labelled Introduction By Faith Into Grace. The believer progresses on to Justified By Faith and then to Peace With God Through Jesus Christ. This assembly line ends and off we come, exulting in the hope of the glory of God. At this point the line has two options.
I’m not sure whether the believer is placed on the next conveyor by the Boss or whether he steps onto it of his own accord but one option is named Tribulation, the other is Ease and Comfort. Many hop onto the Ease and Comfort conveyor and proceed to destinations unknown. A few step onto the Tribulation Line. They first come to the Hardship Station but they hold fast, arriving eventually at Perseverance and then onto Proven Character and then to Hope That Does Not Disappoint. All along the way the love of God is poured out upon them liberally through the Holy Spirit who has been given to them.
This mechanistic portrayal of life in Christ breaks down as do all metaphors but it will still mean something to those who suffer and persevere, or know those who do. My friend Randy Williams comes to mind. He passed away Sunday, April 17th after a long battle with Melanoma. Randy knew the combination of tribulation and perseverance but it was not limited to cancer. I have known Randy since grade school. We attended all the same schools all the way through college, and even shared the same construction career path.
I was aware Randy’s conveyor carried him through hardships earlier and more frequently than most. Circumstances of his life dictated that he become a man much earlier than most boys. (His Popeye arms and square jaw at 11 years old were a hint.) I did not know when his introduction into faith happened I only knew of it because of his proven character. Randy was the real deal, graced with a simple yet powerful devotion to Jesus Christ. Even though he had big strong hands and did much rough work he had a gentleness about him. In all my dealings with Randy he exuded peace. I always left our conversation with an awareness I had been in the presence of an extraordinary man.
Randy Williams was the epitome of Romans 5:1-8 and his hardships are now complete. Thank you Randy for the fragrant aroma of Christ that accompanied your life and which still lingers. You have been a rock to many people and an inspiration to those of us who have known you. Well done Hoss.
And thank you for throwing so many baseballs and footballs with me.
Father, may you continue snatching your defiled and helpless children from the tracks of sin they are on. Succeed in equipping a multitude of people with the knowledge of Your Son. Oh Lord, may our hearts live saturated with a heart-awareness that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us. Amen.