Category Archives: 41. Brokenness

Broken (Sunday)—Isaiah 61:1-3

The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, 

Because the Lord has anointed me 

To bring good news to the afflicted; 

He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, 

To proclaim liberty to captives and freedom to prisoners; 

To proclaim the favorable year of the Lord 

And the day of vengeance of our God; 

To comfort all who mourn, 

To grant those who mourn in Zion, 

Giving them a garland instead of ashes, 

The oil of gladness instead of mourning, 

The mantle of praise instead of a spirit of fainting. 

So they will be called oaks of righteousness, 

The planting of the Lord,

That He may be glorified. (Isaiah 61:1-3)

I believe those of us who are trusting in Jesus as our savior are the plantings of the Lord and that because He did the planting, it is not an exaggeration to call us oaks of righteousness. What a desirable image! An oak is the king of the forest. It is tall and resilient, having faced off with hundreds of storms and seasons of drought. I think this must be God’s vision of our inner (and eternal) man. All indications are this growth will continue even as our earthly trunks succumb to rot.

Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day. For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:16-18)

I have reached the age now that my family and others are looking at me and saying, “That’s not the same tree I used to know.” They see that neither the Spring nor the Fall colors are as vibrant. They know there is some rot in the trunk and stand ready (I hope) to prop me up when the wind blows. How strange that I did not see this coming, that my light affliction would include a degenerative spine that seems to drain the sap right out of me. Yet, I must recall that this  shrinkage and weakening of my body is temporary and is off set by an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison. 

Like it or not, for a season, our bodies remain captives to an unpleasant demise. It is inevitable this affliction will cause some heartbreak at times. That’s ok. Aging is just the most recent storm and the oak that God planted will be strengthened by it. Even though the winds blow and gravity prevails over the visible tree, its spirit can remain strong and resilient because we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. 

Perhaps we can borrow from the spirit of Isiah’s words and confess something like this…

The Spirit of the Lord God is in us, and has anointed us to be good news (even as aged trees) to others similarly afflicted. He has sent us to bind up each other’s broken hearts; to proclaim our liberty to each other; to proclaim that this is the favorable year of the Lord even if there is some rot in the trunk. We can comfort each other when we mourn, knowing, in Christ, we have been given the oil of gladness.

Even as our leaves fall and the branches become brittle, it is my prayer that our inner strength be magnified. I pray that our inevitable demise would not fuel our sorrow, rather it would reinforce the grain that is still forming in our inner man, all for the glory of the One who has planted us. Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Broken (Saturday)—Isaiah 147:1-11

Brokenness. A substitute passage, Psalm 31, prompted the following reflections…

I am confident that it is God’s will on earth (as it is in heaven) that we each receive the priceless gifts of His fatherhood and friendship, yet I am aware many of us feel left out and don’t know why. We are in good company: so did David, the man after God’s own heart. Listen:

You have set my feet in a large place.

However…

 My eye is wasted away from grief,

My soul and my body also. 

For my life is spent with sorrow 

And my years with sighing. 

My strength has failed because of my iniquity, 

And my body has wasted away…

I am forgotten as a dead man, out of mind; 

I am like a broken vessel.

In the previous four decades, I have known some seasons like that. I trace the root cause to two heart-conditions. The first was my prodigal life style. Sin feeds the heart with momentary pleasure while it binds it to guilt and shame. A prodigal’s sense of God grows dim. The second is an elder brother life style, where good works feed the heart with self-righteousness and binds it to religion with judgment and bitterness. Elder brother’s sense of God is not just dim—it’s grossly distorted. I pray that my words, as an ex-offender, will be filled with grace, enabling us to move off of religious-high center, where we may be hung-up, spinning our wheels.

We know of Jacob’s all-night wrestling match with God—no doubt, a picture of our own lives. How ESPN would it be to have a move-by-move account by Jacob of his struggle? How beneficial would that be to our relationships to God? In Psalm 31, David is doing this very thing, offering color-commentary on his wrestlings with God. If you take some time in Psalm 31, you will have a front row seat at the Bethel Gardens Arena. If you observe closely, you may see yourself in the ring. And if you will stay till the last round, you will discover how this arena got its name.

When David says, “In Thee O Lord, I have taken refuge…be Thou to me my fortress,” I hear him saying, “Lord, it is You and me together in this life. I have no other plan, no other recourse. My strength is gone. I am in distress yet my times are in Your hand.”

If we will lean into our lives (again, wrestle, if you will) with the understanding that it is God with whom we have to do (Heb 4:13) and that in Him, we live and move and exist (Acts 17:28), we will eventually discover that all the give and take, all the pressures, from wherever they come, are a part of our prolonged struggle as well as our unprecedented opportunity. For those who persevere in working out their lives face-to-face with Him, God will restore their identities, enabling them to fulfill their destinies. However, we must stay in the ring. Perseverance is required to discover the all-things-work-together hold of Romans 8:28 and the count-it-all-joy hold of James 1:2.

As a (mostly) ex-offender, may I share a move I tried to put on God? For the record, all my favorites have been escape-moves. As I recall, I was perfecting my avoid-brokenness move when God showed me his broken-hip hold. This last round with God highlighted something for me—I am hard-wired to go around brokenness as opposed to going through it.

At some level, we feel our heart dysfunction. We know the pain of human impotence and incompetence, but we learn how to keep those thoughts at bay—we figure out a way to cope and make life work. The paths around our issues include busy schedules, drugs, humor, and hobbies. Anything will do really, as long as it keeps our minds away from the gnawing unresolved issues of our hearts. We elder-brother types try a host of moves. Dreaming we are pressing on to know the Lord, we read the Bible, we read other books, we attend the conferences, get the training, fast and pray, attend the church and serve it. Perhaps you hear the wheels spinning?

We elder brothers do not easily abandon our chores to attend the banquet. While we boycott the party, our disappointments can metastasize into debilitating, deeply buried and well-managed anger. We pride our selves in putting one foot in front of the other—slogging on through our slough of disappointment and despair. This is a tragedy. If we don’t go through our pain, we will just go through the motions. And, if we just go through the motions, our hearts will remain bound up in religion, alienated from God’s love. For newer readers, my working definition of religion is any system of thought or practice whereby the doing of it causes me to think I have gained the favor of God.

It is easy, very easy, to escape God in the church. In any religious subculture, we can go to work serving the Lord with the unresolved issues of our hearts acting as the driving, unseen motivations of all we do. The opportunities for elder brothers in organized religion are almost unlimited: attendance stickers, awards Bibles, social acceptance, titles, offices, tasks to keep us busy, with each substitute for God Himself, aiding and abetting our escape from the real issues of our wounded and insecure hearts.

Jesus has come to set captives free. His targeted captives are not only lost persons, who do not know Jesus as their savior; they are also found-persons, who do not yet know God as their father and friend.  Jesus aspires to liberate His offspring from every lie the enemy has sown into their lives. If we are busy going through the motions (doing right things for the wrong reasons), we are captives. But, even if we are, there is tremendously good news here! In his mercy, Jesus will come into the temple of our heart and kick over the moneychangers’ tables where we are engaged in the unholy and enslaving commerce of religion.

There is irony in this. Our pain and sense of failure may feel mushy to us, but to God, they are the firm subgrade He can build upon. If we will entrust our brokenness to Him, face to face, knowing He is the one we are actually dealing with, we will eventually see something beautiful emerge. Over time, God will construct rest and confidence, the very things we have always wanted and were created for. There is more encouraging news; God wants this even more than we do, and in Christ, He has made provision. Facing-off with God, wrestling with the unholy things that drive us, is where our lasting dreams start taking shape.

I am not saying all honors afforded men within Christendom are evil. I am saying they can be if we haven’t been working through our painful core issues face-to-face with God. This is how it worked for Jacob and David and all the saints who have come to know God intimately. Pain is not evidence of His absence, as the enemy would have us believe. We have pain because we are not yet home. Pain is but a reminder. Pain is not only a frequent component to growing intimacy with God, it is also an indication of what lies we have ingested.

While it is reflexive to flee things that bring us pain, we must do something counterintuitive when we face it. We must hold onto God by letting go. (Please forgive the overused cliché.) We must intentionally entrust all that we are, however bad we think that may be, to God. Saints who follow through can look backward and see the good and strong hand of God taking the worst events of their lives and building things that will last for eternity.

Over time, just living out our lives, wrestling when necessary, our hearts will gradually prove that God is patient, powerful, loving, kind and altogether trustworthy. More irony: the heart would have never known this without the trials. Whether the trial is a test or an attack, it doesn’t really matter. If we process life, face-to-face with Jesus, we will discover Him as our life. We will have an overcomer’s account of the hope within us, which will prove out our portion of His kingdom’s coming, His will being done.

Overcomer’s are triumphant because their vision has been restored. Truth has set the captive free. There is a grand prize for those who will stay in the ring long enough to hear the bell ring and the announcer say, “God, has prevailed.” While the things of God grow dim for estranged sons, the face of God will become progressively clear to children at rest. They will discover that Jesus feeds the heart with abundant life binding it to love, liberty, rest, and joy.

FYI: Bethel means the house of God. After the bell wrung in Jacob’s match, he announced, “Surely God was in this place.” We too, if we will persevere in our losing, will see that God was intimately involved in every aspect of the contest. What a wonderfully odd kingdom, where one must loose the match to be an overcomer!

Father, thank you that today is the day of salvation! Help us to receive your love now, not at some future date when we think we will be better qualified. In the give and take of our lives help us to lay hold of that for which you laid hold of us. Even now, help us to embrace you in the midst of our circumstances. Grant us Your eternal perspective on our brokenness that we may press on to know You and to make You known. Amen.

 

 

Broken (Friday)—Luke 22:54-62

I have located the aged apostle in a Roman prison cell. He is in both sound mind and body but has no illusions about the emperor’s plans for him. Everyone knows Nero’s systematic executions of Christians accounts for the prison’s revolving door. The guards have allowed me to enter the cell and Peter has allowed me to ask my questions.

Perhaps because of my own awe at this man whose shadow was said to have healed people, I was nervous. Peter sensed this and would not have it. His gentleness and humility disarmed me. He simply said, with a smile, “Welcome to my temporary home. Please feel free to ask me any questions you like. I love to tell people about Jesus.”

The following is an excerpt from our conversation.

“Peter, we all know about your breakdown the night Jesus was arrested so many years ago. How do you account for your cowardice and betrayal of this man you had professed your willingness to die for?”

Peter sighed. The question had pierced him deeply and he said, “I have thought about it much but spoken of it very little. Oh my… What a terrible day that was. I had argued with the other disciples in the morning about which of us was the greatest. Later, I had fallen asleep in the garden even after Jesus had instructed us to stay alert. Then the mob came for Jesus and I panicked, injuring a man with my sword. The day concluded with the incident you are referring to. While the day was a disaster, there is something about it you need to understand—it was one of the most important milestones in my relationship to Jesus.

            “The amazing thing, for those of us who stayed with Jesus, is that our failures became our new beginnings—places where His grace has been able to touch us. Our disasters became the platforms on which God has been able to build most deeply. You see, in these areas, we no longer have illusions of who we are and our own greatness. In these areas we know we have nothing—so Christ Himself can become our foundational-everything. I cannot explain why, but this is how it works in His kingdom—where we are most weak, He is most strong.”

 “What do you mean when you referred to illusions as to who you were?”

Peter, nodding, said, “That is an excellent question. None of us really knew what this kingdom-of-God-thing was He was always talking about. We thought the kingdom was going to be a government in the mundane sense. We all thought we were going to be chief administrators in an earthly government. On top of this, none of us knew our own hearts. We truly loved Jesus but, at the same time, each of us had been envisioning our own kingdoms within His. Jesus knew we would not finish the race well with our selfish motives and self-delusion in tact.

“That’s why the evening you’re talking about, as terrible as it was, has also become glorious to me. When Jesus turned and looked at me as the cock crowed, this was my first glimpse of something He had known all along. I was not who I thought I was. I was not the great leader of men. I was the chief of sinners. Although it is painful, my awareness of this has created a dependency that opens my heart to His righteousness, peace, and joy—the substance of His kingdom.”

I had never met anyone like this. I was taken with Peter. He was utterly transparent—very much as I imagined Jesus Himself might have been. And, intuitively, I knew he loved me. I had to ask him, “What’s your advice to me, if I wanted to follow Jesus Christ?”

He offered a wry smile and said, “My counsel is to not follow Jesus from a safe distance as I did the night we all betrayed him. Follow him very closely. Don’t attempt to blend in with those who don’t know Him as I had at the high priest’s home. Instead of saying you don’t know Him, tell the world around you that you do! Why this is so important I cannot fully explain, but I do know, we are changed as we identify ourselves with Him publicly.”

Then, as if a load had been lifted, he said, “There is something else you need to know. God is using the events of your life—literally everything that touches you, to transform you into the image of Jesus. My story is relevant because you and I are made of the same stuff. He will likely expose you just as He did with me, so that it will be Him you are really trusting and not some illusion you have of Him or yourself. There may be some terrible moments as you follow Jesus, but press on. They will become the precious chapters in the story you have been born to tell. Keep in mind, our profession is not a one-time event; it is a lifestyle of telling others about our experiences with Jesus. Having a story of our own and telling it well is our calling.”

The jailer called out, “Time!” and our conversation was over as quickly as it had begun. The old fisherman rejected my hand and, while engulfing me in a great bear hug, and said softly to me, “See you on the other side. I’ve got more stories for you.

The apostle Peter was crucified the next day.

Father, so be it, if you must turn your gaze upon us and provoke bitter tears. Help us to honor the circumstances You are using to expose us, so that we may trust You more completely. Do the necessary work in us, such that You become our foundation. May we publicly walk in step with you in all boldness and joy. Amen.

Supplemental passages:

But whoever denies Me before men, I will also deny him before My Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 10:33)

For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will also be ashamed of him when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels. (Mark 8:38)

For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when He comes in His glory, and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels. (Luke 9:26)

If we endure, we will also reign with Him; If we deny Him, He also will deny us; (2 Timothy 2:12)

 

 

Broken (Thursday)—Isaiah 53:1-12

I’m imagining a new magazine. It will be called, The Rational Inquirer (all copyrights reserved). It will answer the questions that need to be asked, not the ones prompted by the outer space-celebrity connection. Its articles will tell the stories of the saints, those captives Jesus is setting free. Their stories will affirm scripture and confirm that the truth is more amazing than fiction.

Sales will initially lag behind Charisma and Christianity Today but will eventually win the readership of both camps since its focus will remain on Jesus – the common denominator. Safeway and Skaggs Albertson will bolster its sales as it finds its way next to the gum, batteries, Rolling Stone and the other Inquirer. It will trump even Trump with this headliner question, the one so many have forgotten they’re asking: “Who is God and what is He like?” Ironically, our response to this question forms the foundation of who we are and what we are like. If someone came to me and asked me this question, I might say, “I’m assuming your question is in earnest, so I want to put you on the right trail. Let me suggest you read Isaiah 53, then the gospel of John. These two passages will shed light on your question. As you read, try writing down your impressions. Once you have done this, let’s get together and chat.”

If this seeker follows through, they are in for some big surprises. They might have envisioned God as powerful, but did they expect to find Him so vulnerable? While they expected a ruler, will they be surprised to find a servant? They knew kings issued decrees, but did they anticipate His silence? His questions? While a deity is supposed to be far above and beyond us, will they be shocked that He came and took a position beneath and along side us?

After reading Isaiah and John, our rational inquirer will likely conclude that the God revealed in scripture is far beyond human invention and must be a God worthy of their worship. Perhaps you or I will be that third witness, who weighs in with our story. Perhaps we are intended to be the appointed ones who introduce this person to Jesus Christ. Perhaps we will be honored to hear our inquirer’s “Yes, Abba,” the first words of their brand new language.

Father, connect us to those You are drawing to yourself. Anoint us as catalysts to stir their hearts with the wonderful news of who You are and what You are like. Amen.

 

Broken (Wednesday)—Genesis 32:22-32

Once upon a time, I viewed the Christian life as a series of customized painful experiences divined to refine my character. Brokenness was the attitude of heart required to endure this gauntlet. Brokenness was my cross to bear. The ruggedness of the cross correlated directly with the foulness of my wicked heart. From this view, the intensity of my obstacle course suggested that, in my case, God was working on a higher order of wretch.

To cross the finish line, as I aspired to do, my brokenness required an exceptionally passive (even fatalistic) kind of acceptance of each new shoe that dropped. I could tell my story of cross-bearing with zeal, but unfortunately, not very joyfully. My future looked bleak. How could I clear the health, relationship, and financial hurdles before me?

Jacob faced some hurdles as well. He was about to meet Esau, a sibling he had swindled, who would likely kill him and plunder his belongings. Just before Jacob was to encounter his estranged brother and realize his tragic end, he was left alone at the ford of the Jabbok River. It was there he entered into a physical struggle with God that lasted until sunrise.

This scene fascinates me. Jacob, whose story is similar to our own, in that his future was also uncertain, was anything but passive or fatalistic. There was no way Jacob was going to waste this much energy without a benefit! Then God said, “Let me go. For the dawn is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”

This reminds me of a scene from the movie Patton. Listen to the dialogue between Patton (played by George C. Scott) and his chief aid, William Meeks:

Patton: (moody, intensely introspective): I’ve always felt that I was destined for some great achievement. What I don’t know.

Aid: Yes, sir.
Patton: (musing, with great pathos): The last great opportunity of a lifetime—an entire world at war, and I’m left out of it?! (With greater passion) “God will not permit this to happen! (With violent resolve) “I will be allowed to fulfill my destiny!”(With reverence, as if this has now become a settled matter in heaven): “His will be done.”

Perhaps it was.

This scene fascinates me. It mirrors a season in my life when I was expending my final reserves in a prolonged struggle with God—a long, exhausting season when I was just trying to endure the obstacle course I believed that God had laid out before me. I can’t even explain why, but something very Patton-like rose up from within me, declaring, “I will not permit this season to pass without the specific blessing of understanding God’s heart.” As egocentric as this may sound, I believed, with a peculiar certainty, that I too had a great destiny; that the last great battle was before me and that it was my destiny to contribute. This new assertive tone was unfamiliar to my own spiritual ears. It was a contradiction to my passivity and fatalism.

 And God said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” And God said, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel: for you have striven with God and with men and have prevailed.” (Genesis 32:27-28)

My experience, along with George Patton’s “Amen,” affirmed the idea that God approves of our steely resolve in realizing our identities and in fulfilling our destinies. I believe our identities and destinies are a big slice of our inheritance in Christ. I can hear the spirit of this in Paul’s words: “I press on in order that I may lay hold of that for which I was laid hold of by Christ.”

If we will lean into our lives (wrestle, if you will) with the understanding that it is ultimately God with whom we are wrestling (Heb 4:13) and that in Him, we live and move and exist (Acts 17:28), we will eventually discover that all the give and take, all the pressures of life, from wherever they come, is a part of our prolonged struggle as well as our unprecedented opportunity. If we will persevere in working out our lives face-to-face with God, He is going to restore our identities, lead us into our destinies, and glorify His name in the process.

I don’t view brokenness in the same light I once did. It remains with me to a degree, just as Jacob’s limp remained with him—as a revised understanding of God, myself, and the cross. Brokenness, arising from the cross, changes a heart’s orientation to God from gauntlet supervisor to Father. And, while character reform is inevitable, it is not the primary point. His higher objective is simply to reveal His love to us in Jesus—our provision of abundant life.

Father, help us to see how enjoined to and inseparable from You our live are. May Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.

Broken (Tuesday)—Luke 22:24-34

An article I read recently, borrowing from the best sociology, made out to demonstrate that the world has not been, and never would be, changed by good theology and sincerity. It had only been changed by society’s elite: the cultural icons whose ideas find their way into the main stream, affecting group thought and ultimately human behavior. I found the article intellectually compelling but deeply troubling.

The research reveals that, in the last two millennia, neither piety nor prayer has change the world. This Christian writer was proposing that they never would. It was even implied that putting any confidence in piety and prayer might be a form of insanity. I was stunned! I wondered if the author had bothered to imagine what the world would look like without Christianity?

Another stream within the church, which also aspires to change the world, has made the same observation: that atop seven mountains of culture, dwell the mind-molders—the elites who shape the world. If Christians want to change the world, they must set their sites on these summits and begin their ascent. This presentation too was impressive yet troubling. Why? They had left Jesus at the base of the mountain: “Let him who is greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as the servant… I am among you as the one who serves.”

This passage teaches that those with aspirations to climb, may already be hampered by altitude sickness and its symptom of fuzzy thinking: “And there arose also a dispute among them as to which one of them was regarded to be the greatest.” I can almost hear the rebuttal of the world-changers: “But we have a mandate to climb. We won’t succumb to the same pride and pettiness as Jesus’ disciples.” Really?

Peter was giving a similar rebuttal as Jesus was trying to show him he had already been affected by altitude delusion and that Satan liked this arrangement. Peter’s attitude was, “No, Jesus. You don’t understand. I really can do this.” “Lord with You I am ready to go to both prison and to death!”

We know what happened next. Peter had to be broken before he could lead. He had to discover that he had grossly misjudged himself. Can you imagine the painful awakening that began for him when the cock crowed three times? This was both Peter’s lowest point and the trailhead of his revival. It was from the bottom Peter ascended to the high place of leadership in the early church.

As I watch Christian thought swirling around me, mostly free of any current of brokenness, I wonder, are we not dreaming that water flows uphill? Can one really lead without being broken? What losses within the body of Christ and to the Kingdom of God are caused by unbroken leaders?

We recall God’s original instructions to take dominion over the earth, but does that mandate equate to setting our sights directly on the summits of earthly influence? I would hate to miss it, but I have not heard any call to scale Everest. I don’t believe the scriptures direct us to change the world. I do read that we are slated for change. I believe we have been directed to build God’s kingdom by sharing in His sufferings. Perhaps after we aspirants to power are broken, we will then be equipped to serve and then ascend. “You are those who have stood by Me in My trials; and just as My Father has granted Me a kingdom, I grant you [the kingdom].”

There are little t truths and big T Truths. Changing the world falls into the little t category for me. It’s real. It’s vital. It’s a worthy aspiration. However, I believe the kingdom of God is the big T reality. In its eternal nature the kingdom of God is a vast mountain range dwarfing the Seven Mountains of Society. One day God’s broken kingdom leaders will hike up and beyond the offices of this earth’s movers and shakers. From their lofty places, they will ultimately rule and judge this world (see vs. 30) with love and wisdom. Then we will see the world changed in earnest. Whether you are a world-changer or a kingdom-builder, grab a copy of Hind’s Feet on High Places (see warning below). This is Hannah Hurnard’s trail guide to climbers.

And if we are tempted to abandoned piety and prayer, just remember, Satan has requested permission to sift us too. So, as Jesus’ instructs us, “Don’t abandon prayer.”

Father, we see the winds of Your Spirit blowing. We don’t know where they are taking us, but we do know that we are to gird ourselves as You did, to love and to serve our neighbor. Help us to identify with the needs of those around us. Help us take our next steps downward that we might ascend. Amen.

                       Warning: Hannah Hurnard will not pass the doctrinal checkpoint. The Bible police have stopped her and will stop you, too, if you are caught with any H.H. contraband. They will show you her rap sheet and prove she was a heretic. They will reveal she drifted into universalism in her later life. They will fail to mention though that with Hinds Feet on High Places, she wrote a theologically sound allegory, describing the unlikely pathway to authentic influence.

 

Brokenness (Monday)- Psalm 51:1-19

What is the deepest and truest thing about you?  I have observed that part of my family in Christ believes they are, in their essential make up, wonderful. The other part believes they are wretched. Welcome to the bi-polar Body of Christ.

Whether we are wonderful or depraved is not typically found in the print of a group’s doctrinal statement. However, it is easily found in the believer’s heart. If you listen carefully to the conversations and to the music, you can hear what we think of ourselves. One group sings, “My heart is prone to wander.” The other sings, “God makes beautiful things”. How well I understand.

For three decades I was wholeheartedly committed to the idea that I had a Jeremiah 17:9 – heart – one that is deceitful, desperately sick and beyond understanding. I thought, “Thank God my heart was like David’s, whose sin (like mine) was ever before me! Thank God my heart was like Paul’s – wretched (Romans 7:14-25)!” Then, there were the two confirming witnesses; my thought life and my behavior – they were always ready with their affirmations of my depravity. Even though I was dying inside, I was proud that I was mastering Psalm 51– brokenness and contrition, which God so loved.  Spiritually speaking, I was flying pretty high but in a very low sort of way.

The assumptions I was making about my nature drove me with an intensity, similar, I believed, to my hero David – that man after God’s own heart. If you could have listened in on my heart-to- heart conversation with God, it would have sounded like this:

“Oh Lord, my sin, which naturally springs up from my heart, is ever before me. My heart is not clean, and believe me, I know! Oh God, create in me a clean heart, renew a steadfast spirit within me! and please, please, please, do not take your Holy Spirit from me!”

If I would have had ears to hear, I would have heard God’s response to my dirge, “Oh Rob, I did create in you a clean heart and furthermore I have no intention of taking my Spirit from you. Stop praying this. OK?”

However, being dull, yet zealous of heart, I believed if I could adequately establish this lifestyle of brokenness, if I could just repent deeply enough, if I could just seek Him with more discipline, then I could finally know Him and I would not be such a perpetual problem child. (Note; if you would like to construct a religious treadmill; this paragraph should provide a pretty good blueprint.)

I was being driven by an “if-then” legalistic caveat. I was not being drawn by a loving being.  Where was all my intensity and desperation coming from? My sense of depravity was producing mega-wattege of shame and guilt driven energy. I was dead serious about God. I was perfecting the dark night of the soul as a lifestyle. I was so zealous I thought God might just snatch me up in my own personal rapture like Enoch. My family would say, “Rob was…..and then he was not”. (I am only barely exaggerating). God’s reply? “Oh Rob.”

In the midst of my dead reckoning approach toward God, some events transpired that served to modify my identity – how I viewed myself. Today, as I read Psalm 51, I see a snapshot of David’s thinking in the midst of a season of deep repentance. It was taken after he had taken ownership of his actions as a murderer and adulterer. I don’t believe a moving picture of David’s heart would reveal that Psalm 51 characterized his lifestyle any more than I believe Romans 7:14-21 characterized Paul’s.

When I read Psalm 51 today, I am at peace that God has cleansed me of my sin therefore it is not continually before me. He has purified me and washed me whiter than snow. He has made me to hear joy and gladness. He has not hidden His face from me. He is not threatening to take his Holy Spirit from me. He has restored to me the joy of my salvation. I don’t believe a dirge about my old nature is the song  I was destined to sing. A sorrowful dirge coming from a new creation is not music to God’s ears.

As the beneficiaries and heirs of a new covenant, we can sing songs of rejoicing which acknowledge our newness in Christ. Our deepest reality is that Christ lives in us and we are temples of the Holy Spirit. The deepest and truest thing about us is that we have been grafted into the Vine. We are rooted permanently into God through Christ. Exclusively, by God’s scandalous grace, we are in a wonderful place. God thinks we are wonderful and I find that I am agreeing with Him on this point more and more.

David has reminded us that we were conceived in iniquity – so there is a depravity component to us. Even though we have been buried in Christ and raised up with Him, this aspect of us seeks expression. But, are these impulses proof positive that our fallen natures define us? Isn’t it plausible that giving our fallen natures so much credit empowers them to have more influence than they should?

When I get caught in a cross-fire within our divided family, I just tell my story. I now believe there are littlet truths, and there are big-T truths. Our fallen nature is a  “little t” truth. It is not as large as the big-T truth, our new identities are built upon. Welcome to the New Covenant.

This is my story. This is now my song. I am praising my Savior, now, more than ever, all the day long.

Father, may Your opinion and big-T truths prevail. Help us to renew our minds with  your opinions about us. Restore to us our identities as children of light, truth, joy and freedom. Cause us to be those whose songs and behavior validate, not contradict, the Good News you came to bring. Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Brokenness (Sunday) – Isaiah 61:1-3

Brokenness – Isaiah 61:1-3 Jesus’ Mission Statement (and ours)

The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the afflicted; He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to captives and freedom to prisoners; to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn, to grant those who mourn in Zion, giving them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a spirit of fainting. So they will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that He may be glorified. Isaiah 61:1-3

Earlier this week, I referenced, what I believed was, a Thy kingdom come – Thy will be done – scene from the movie Patton. It was so timely, so potent, it seemed prophetic to me. I will share it again …

Patton: (intensely introspective) “I’ve always felt that I was destined for some great achievement … what I don’t know.”

Aid: (authentically empathetic) “Yes, sir.”

Patton: (incredulous – ready to implode) “The last great opportunity of a lifetime – an entire world at war, and I’m left out of it?!” … (with passionate resolve) “God WILL NOT permit this to happen!” … (with VIOLENT resolve) “I WILL be allowed to fulfill my destiny!” … (as if he is closing in prayer … deeply reverent, since this is now, after all, a settled matter in heaven) “His will be done.”

Thank you George for your holy tirade.

Between 1991 and 2012 I attended church – religiously. Most of that time I was an elder, entrusted (I had assumed) with the spiritual health of my fellow attenders. In this mission I preached, taught, was on the worship team, led it occasionally, led adult Sunday school as well as a house group. Church was my life, yet, for reasons I could not fully explain, (although that never kept me from trying), I felt as though I was a benchwarmer in the grand scheme of things.

I tried sharing my angst with my co-elders but discovered with each additional word I was adding to a problem – I was driving these poor men (and at least one of their wives) crazy and they were returning the favor. This was super painful for everyone! What was happening? I love these people! I still do. I didn’t know it at the time but I was learning a new language with new and more complete definitions of its words – words we elders had thrown around glibly for twenty years.

Despising loneliness, desiring community, I sought out voices  (in holy desperation) that might resonate with my heart. This compounded the problem – my family was changing. My heart was bonding with a larger community, which I have came to think of as the “big-C” Church. (Perhaps, if they ever form into a cohesive group, they can call themselves, for more than one reason,  The Church Without A Ceiling.)

Oh how grateful I was to finally find faces to go with those voices! Not only did I enjoy harmonic frequency with my new (diverse and broadly dispersed) community, I loved these people for a very selfish reason … they assured me I was not going crazy. I will forever be grateful! Here is how one of these connections was established …

Out off the blue, I got a call from Jack Taylor, an internationally known speaker and author. With my international network, hampered as it was by my city limits, my response was, “WHO?!” He said a mutual friend had suggested we make contact. “WHAT?!” Putting it mildly, I was all ears. The conversation deepened quickly. I had found someone who was listening (very rare) and seemed to understand (rarer yet). My angst spilled out; “WHY?!” It was like an out of body experience. I heard myself just going on and on about my flirtation with insanity. As I blabbed I recall thinking, “Would somebody please shut this guy (being me) up!”

At the end of each of my cathartic bursts, Jack would respond, “Excellent!”, “Oh that’s superb!” or, “Oh yes, this is sweet.” His responses made me wonder if he wasn’t crazy! I finally interrupted this flow of affirmation, “Mr. Taylor, you don’t understand. I”m loosing my flipping marbles!” He assured me (or he tried to) that all was better with my soul than I perceived. He said we needed to get together face-to-face. At that time, I was not turning down offers to meet with those who might affirm my sanity and confirm my connection to the Body of Christ, especially if that hand was being extended by a legitimate spiritual father. My flights were booked within the hour.

I must fast forward to say that Jack Taylor turned out to be one of the saints, whose council and prayers assured me that God was in the midst of my circumstances. This season of blessed disorientation radically impacted my heart. I no longer drive any co-elders crazy, although I did unintentionally wound at least two of them. I afflicted these wounds while trying to keep my marbles in the basket – explaining, all the while, just how that tidy process was working. (Is there an emoticon for extreme sarcasm?) Today, as apostate as it may sound, I am no longer attending a local church. And … at the same time, I no longer feel like a benchwarmer in the grand kingdom-scheme of things. Go figure.

I have heard these words more than once, “Rob, I am concerned for you. Why are you not a part of a local church?” The short answer is that I have no reason to think I would not recreate the same unwelcome tensions I did in my church of twenty years. Until I find a group of people, speaking the same language, or a group that at least has an excellent interpreter, I am going to spare us all the pain. The much longer answer is In The Middle With Mystery, the blog site I created to answer this question and hopefully assuage the tensions that accompany mystery and transformation.

From my MwM island, I daily place my epistles-in-a-bottle into the current, praying they will be plucked out of the river and read by others hungering and thirsting for rightness. I pray that my fumbling, longing-filled attempts to articulate a new language might serve as a connection between the island and the mainland of christian thinking. I have dreamed of a unified body of Christ, whose collective voice would silence the enemy, whose lies have permeated the church. (Warning: wear Kevlar if you plan to say this in an elder’s meeting.)

I have imagined the longings of the saints, serving as fascia in Christ’s body, making us a collective, vibrant expression of Truth, capable of liberating a multitudes of captives. I am dreaming forward and praying this might happen now. In the west, we are currently loosing the battle in grand fashion. (I have noticed we do not have any church committee’s addressing this. 🙂

General Patton frustrated his superiors because he knew who he was – a man who was born for such a time as that. His exploits in defeating Nazi Germany are now legendary but he had to fight for the opportunity to make his contribution.  Jesus frustrated the religious superiors in his time as well because, he too, knew who he was and what he has come to do …

….. to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to captives and freedom to prisoners; to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn, to grant those who mourn in Zion, giving them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a spirit of fainting.

After processing some of my inner storms, I have ended up with a much improved, more settled understanding of who I am, as a beloved son of God, and astonishingly – his friend. I too found myself, militantly reclaiming my destiny, which at least for this time, is not fitting neatly into any classic definition of christian ministry. I am simply living my life as a saint, a brother and a friend, right here, in the here-and-now, where, I trust, God has strategically placed me.

Like George P., I believe both you and I have been created and destined for great kingdom achievements. We may not know our ultimate contribution to this last great battle but I do know this much; it is underway and you and I are on the front lines. Every day we get out of bed our mission is simply to learn to live out of our new lives in Christ. This mission may sound simple but if it is accomplished it will come by way of a revolution within Christianity. That is a topic for a future foray. Dreaming ahead …

If we can heed the Lord of Host’s commissioning Word, it will one day be said of us….

They too, bound up the brokenhearted. With their lives, they too demonstrated liberty and led captives out of both carnal and religious imprisonment. They too demonstrated that God remains favorable to heal, to save and to deliver. To those mourning for the kingdom of God, they supplied boldness and joy. They fueled a revolutionary awakening of God’s life on this earth which resulted in an abundance of gladness, joy and praise.

Father, before the day of vengeance, may we grasp just how favorable the moments you have given us are. Deliver us from every lie, however sacred we have deemed them. By your Spirit, commission us afresh, as your friends and family, with good news. May our legacy be akin to your own, as agents of deliverance, in a never ending kingdom governed by love. That you may be glorified. So be it.

 

Brokenness (Saturday) – Isaiah 147:1-11

Brokenness – a substitute passage, Psalm 31 prompted the following reflections …

I am confident that it is God’s will on earth (as it is in heaven), that we each receive the priceless gifts of his fatherhood and his friendship, yet I am aware many of us feel left out and we don’t know why. We are in good company; so did David, the man after God’s own heart. Listen; “You have set my feet in a large place. However … 

My eye is wasted away from grief, my soul and my body also. For my life is spent with sorrow and my years with sighing. My strength has failed because of my iniquity, and my body has wasted away … I am forgotten as a dead man, out of mind; I am like a broken vessel.”

In the previous four decades, I have known some seasons like this. I trace the root cause to two heart-conditions. The first was my prodigal life style. Sin feeds the heart with momentary pleasure while it binds it to guilt and shame. A prodigal’s sense of God grows dim. The second is an elder brother life style, where good works feed the heart with self righteousness and binds it to religion, judgement and bitterness. Elder brother’s sense of God is not only dim, its grossly distorted. I pray that my words, as an ex-offender, will be filled with grace, enabling us to move off of religious-high center, where we may be hung-up, spinning our wheels.

We know of Jacob’s all-night wrestling match with God – no doubt, a picture of our own lives. How ESPN would it be to have a move-by-move account by Jacob of his struggle? How beneficial would that be to our relationships to God? In Psalm 31, David is doing this very thing – offering color-commentary on his wrestlings with God. If you take some time in Psalm 31, you will have a front row seat at the Bethel Gardens Arena. If you observe closely, you may see yourself in the ring. And … if you will stay till the last round you will discover how this arena got its name.

When David says, “In Thee O Lord, I have taken refuge…be Thou to me my fortress“, I hear him saying, “Lord, it is you and me together in this life. I have no other plan, no other recourse. My strength is gone. I am in distress yet my times are in Your hand.”

If we will lean into our lives (wrestle, if you will) with the understanding that it is with God with whom we have to do (Heb 4:13) and that in him, we live and move and exist (Acts 17:28), we will eventually discover that all the give and take, all the pressures, from wherever they come, are a part of our prolonged struggle as well as our unprecedented opportunity. For those who persevere in working out their lives face to face with him, God will restore their identities, enabling them to fulfill their destinies. However, we must stay in the ring. Perseverance is required to discover the all-things-work-together hold of Romans 8:28 and the count-it-all-joy hold of James 1:2.

As a (mostly) ex-offender, may I share a move I tried to put on God? For the record, all my favorites have been escape-moves. As I recall, I was perfecting my avoid-brokenness move when God showed me his broken-hip hold. This last round with God highlighted something for me – I am hard-wired to go around brokenness as opposed to going through it.

At some level, we feel our heart dysfunction. We know the pain of human impotence and incompetence but we learn how to keep those thoughts at bay – we figure out a way to cope and make life work. The paths around our issues include busy schedules, drugs, humor and hobbies. Anything will do really, as long as it keeps our minds away from the gnawing unresolved issues of our hearts. We elder-brother types try a host of moves. Dreaming we are pressing on to know the Lord, we read the bible, we read other books, we attend the conferences, get the training, fast and pray, attend the church and serve it. Perhaps you hear the wheels spinning?

We elder brothers do not easily abandon our chores and attend the banquet. While we are boycotting the party, our disappointments can metastasize into debilitating, deeply buried and well-managed anger. We pride our selves in putting one foot in front of the other – slogging on, through our slough of disappointment and despair. This is a tragedy. If we don’t go through our pain, we will just go through the motions. And … if we just go through the motions our hearts will remain bound up in religion, alienated from God’s love. For newer readers, my working definition of religion is …

any system of thought or practice whereby the doing of it causes me think I have gained the favor of God.

It is easy, very easy, to escape God in the church. In any religious subculture, we can go to work serving the Lord with the unresolved issues of our heart acting as the driving, unseen motivations of all we do. The opportunities for elder brothers in organized religion are almost unlimited – attendance stickers, awards bibles, social acceptance, titles, offices, tasks to keep us busy, with each substitute for God himself, aiding and abetting our escape from the real issues of our wounded and insecure hearts.

Jesus has come to set captives free. His targeted captives are not only lost –persons who do not know Jesus as their savior – they are also found – persons who do not yet know God as their father and friend.  Jesus aspires to liberate his offspring from every lie the enemy has sown into their lives. If we are busy going through the motions (doing right things for the wrong reasons), we are captives. But, even if we are, there is tremendously good news here, ! In his mercy, Jesus will come into the temple of our heart and kick over the money changer’s tables where we are engaged in the unholy and enslaving commerce of religion.

There is irony in this. Our pain and sense of failure may feel mushy to us, but to God, it is the firm sub grade he can build upon. If we will entrust our brokenness to him, face to face, knowing he is the one we are actually dealing with, we will eventually see something beautiful emerge. Over time, God will construct rest and confidence, the very things we have always wanted and were created for. There is more encouraging news; God wants this even more than we do, and in Christ, he has made provision. Facing-off with God, wrestling with the unholy things that drive us, is where our lasting dreams start taking shape.

I am not saying all honors afforded men within Christendom are evil. I am saying they can be if we haven’t been working through our painful core issues face to face with God. This is how it worked for Jacob and David and all saints who come to know God intimately. Pain is not evidence of his absence as the enemy would have us believe. We have pain because we are not yet home. Pain is but a reminder. Pain is not only a frequent component to growing intimacy with God, it is also an indication of what lies we have ingested.

While it is reflexive to flee things that brings us pain, we must do something counterintuitive when we face it. We must hold onto God by letting go. (Please forgive the overused cliche.) We must intentionally entrust all that we are, however bad we think that may be, to God.  Saints who follow through can look backward and see the good and strong hand of God taking the worst events of their lives and building things that will last for eternity.

Over time, just living out our lives, wrestling when necessary, our hearts will gradually prove that God is patient, powerful, loving, kind and altogether trustworthy. More irony; the heart would have never known this without the trials. Whether the trial is a test or an attack, it doesn’t really matter. If we process life, face-to-face with Jesus, we will discover him as our life. We will have an overcomer’s account of the hope within us which will prove his kingdom has come and his will is being done.

Overcomer’s are triumphant because their vision has been restored. Truth has set the captive free. There is a grand prize for those who will stay in the ring long enough to hear the bell ring and the announcer say, “God, has prevailed.” While the things of God grow dim for estranged sons, the face of God will become progressively clear to children at rest. They will discover that Jesus feeds the heart with abundant life binding it to love, liberty, rest and joy.

FYI: Bethel means the house of God. After the bell wrung in Jacob’s match, he announced, “Surely God was in this place.” We too, if we will persevere in our loosing, will see that God was intimately involved in every aspect of the contest. What a wonderfully odd kingdom, where one must loose the match to be an overcomer!

Father, thank you that today is the day of salvation! Help us to receive your love now, not at some future date when we think we will be better qualified. In the give and take of our lives help us to lay hold of that for which you laid hold of us. Even now, help us to embrace you in the midst of our circumstances. Grant us your eternal perspective on our brokenness that we may press on to know you and to make you known. Amen.

 

 

Brokenness (Friday) – Luke 22:54-62

Brokenness – Luke 22:54-62

I have located the aged apostle in a Roman prison cell. He is in both sound mind and body but has no illusions about the emperor’s plans for him. Everyone knows Nero’s systematic executions of Christians accounts for the prison’s revolving door. The guards have allowed me to enter the cell and Peter has allowed me to ask my questions.

Perhaps because of my own awe at this man whose shadow was said to have healed people, I was nervous. Peter sensed this and would not have it. His gentleness and humility disarmed me. He simply said, with a smile, “Welcome to my temporary home. Please feel free to ask me any questions you like. I love to tell people about Jesus.” The following is an excerpt from our conversation …

Peter, we all know about your breakdown the night Jesus was arrested so many years ago. How do you account for your cowardice and betrayal of this man you had professed your willingness to die for?

Peter sighed. The question had pierced him deeply and he said, “I have thought about it much but spoken of it very little. Oh my … what a terrible, terrible day that was! I had argued with the other disciples in the morning about which of us was the greatest. Later, I had fallen asleep in the garden even after Jesus had instructed me to stay alert. Then the mob came for Jesus and I panicked, injuring a man with my sword. The day concluded with the incident you are referring to. While the day was a disaster, there is something about it you need to understand – it was one of the most important milestones in my relationship to Jesus.”

“You see … the amazing thing, for those of us who stayed with Jesus, is that our failures became our new beginnings – places where his grace has been able to touch us. Our disasters became the platforms on which God has been able to build most deeply. You see … in these areas, we no longer have illusions of who we are and our own greatness. In these areas we know we have nothing – so Christ himself can become our foundational-everything. I cannot explain why, but this is how it works in his kingdom – where we are most weak, He is most strong.”

              What do you mean when you referred to illusions as to who you were? 

Peter, nodding, said, “That is an excellent question. You see, none of us really knew what this kingdom-of-God-thing was he was always talking about. We thought the kingdom was going to be a government in the earthly sense. We all thought we were going to be chief administrators in an earthly government. On top of this, none of us knew our own hearts. We truly loved Jesus but, at the same time, each of us had been envisioning our own kingdoms within his. Jesus knew we would not finish the race well with our selfish motives and self-delusion in tact.”

“That is why the evening you have referred to, as terrible as it was, has also become glorious to me. When Jesus turned and looked at me as the cock crowed, this was my first glimpse of something he had known all along. I was not who I thought I was. I was not the great leader of men. I was the chief of sinners. Although it is painful, my awareness of this has created a dependency that opens my heart to his righteousness, peace and joy – the substance of his kingdom.

I had never met anyone like this. I was taken with Peter. He was utterly transparent – very much as I imagined Jesus himself might have been. And, intuitively, I knew he loved me. I had to ask him …

                           What is your advice to me, if I wanted to follow Jesus Christ?

He offers a wry smile and says, “My counsel is to not follow Jesus from a safe distance as I did the night we all betrayed him. Follow him very closely. Don’t attempt to blend in with those who don’t know him as I had at the high priest’s home. Instead of saying you don’t know him, tell the world around you that you do! Why this is so important I cannot fully explain, but I do know, we are changed as we identify ourselves with him publicly.”

Then, as if a load had been lifted, Peter said,

“There is something else you need to know. God is using the events of your life – literally everything that touches you, to transform you into the image of Jesus. My story is relevant because you and I are made of the same stuff. He will likely expose you just as he did with me, so that it will be him you are really trusting and not some illusion you have of him or yourself. There may be some terrible moments as you follow Jesus, but press on. They will become the precious chapters in the story you have been born to tell. Keep in mind, our profession is not a one time event; it is a lifestyle of telling others about our experiences with Jesus. Having a story of our own and telling it well is our calling.”

The jailer called out, “Time!” and our conversation was over as quickly as it had begun. The old fisherman rejected my hand and while engulfing me in a great bear hug, he whispered to me, “See you on the other side. I’ve got more stories for you.

The apostle Peter was crucified the next day.

Father, so be it, if you must turn your gaze upon us and provoke bitter tears. Help us to honor the circumstances you are using to expose us, so that we may trust you more completely. Do the necessary work in us, such that you become our foundation. May we publicly walk in step with you in all boldness and joy. Amen.

Supplemental passages: Matthew 10:33, Mark 8:38, Luke 9:26 and 2 Timothy 2:12.