He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be greatly shaken…For God alone, O my soul, wait in silence, for my hope is from Him.  He only is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be shaken.  Psalm 62:2, 5-6

Much like a room in total silence allows me to hear the ringing in my ears, I often have to be given space and time to rest to even begin to feel how very tired I am.  I have commented on my exhaustion, because it hasn’t been submerged below my consciousness but has encumbered my muscles, joints and ability to think productively.  So even though my bone tired state has declared itself loudly and consistently over the past year, getting away to the beach allowed me to see a deeper unrest, far more toxic and crippling.

The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?  The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?  When evildoers assail me to eat up my flesh, my adversaries and foes, it is they who stumble and fall.  Psalm 27:1-2

Of whom shall I be afraid?  Everyone.  I have been living in a state of tense anxiety because of the increase of violence on our street…thankfully since May it has not been against any person, but against our car, my dad’s car and my parents’ “side house” – the door being kicked in, then repaired and reinforced by Terrell or my Dad, only to be found kicked down again – on three occasions in the past week.  It has caused me to live with my nerve endings constantly “awake”, alert, wanting always to be prepared for a coming assault.  It is I who am stumbling and falling, like in a dream when your legs are so oddly weighted you can’t outrun the danger that pursues you.  My assailants seem to be gaining in number and confidence unlike the declaration of this Psalm.

 Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear; though war arise against me, yet I will be confident.  Psalm 27:3

My heart is weak, flimsy, deflated and easily toppled in the face not only of an army encamped “against me”, but even citizens or visitors through that army’s country.  What I mean is, I realize that it isn’t just the middle of the night thugs bashing windows and doors that has me on edge and simultaneously drained of strength, it is the constant experience and encounters which remind me that people are more prone to suspicion than assuming the best, self-protection rather than self-sacrifice, cynical, unforgiving, vengeful, self-seeking, disregarding the value of others, not compassionate or patient, quick to judge without mercy, delighting in discord, determined to look out for one’s own interests even at the expense of the needs of others…and each of these can be seen in my own heart throughout the course of most days. The wickedness of mankind, the darkness that dwells in the hearts of men, overwhelms me and is too strong for me to stand against.

How does the Psalmist enjoy such confidence, such peace and I find myself so deeply shaken?

 One thing I have asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to meditate in his temple.  Psalm 27:4

On a practical note and for starters, I have been dwelling in the house at my mailing address and not in the house of the Lord.  I am looking for beauty (that is elusive) in my home, in dreams of our yard’s future landscape, demanding beauty come from the people around me and that my possessions provide my stability, my shelter, my refuge and my strength.  So, when I find my car window broken or gaze at the unending mess in our home from dogs, children and even the parents, my heart is made weary.  I’ve set my heart upon the wrong rock.

My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength/rock of my heart and my portion forever.  Psalm 73:26

Unlike the Psalmist, I want to stabilize my feet with a definable and measurable career.  I’m wanting to plant my feet in a finished and photo-worthy home.  I am still looking for salvation (not the after death kind, but the life justifying proclamation) through school affiliations, titles and positions, the honor and respect of people, the companionship of admirable friends and surroundings which promote rest.  I have been deeply shaken because I have been dwelling in the wrong home, one built on sand and not on the rock.

 He said, “Come.”  So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus.  But when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me.”  Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?”  Matt. 14:29-31

 Just like Peter, and unlike the Psalmist, my gaze is not fixed on His face but instead on the powerful waves against (nor on top of) which I cannot stand.  The deep waters are easily able to drown me, but they are not able to drown the One who made them and who remains sovereign over them.  Jesus did not come to live, suffer, die and defeat death to merely send me love notes on rainy days.  He reigns and invites me to place my confidence in His rule, to plant my feet on His rock, to set my focus on His face.  If I make my dwelling in His house for every day of my life, then I can trust that the mud on the floor or the unfinished trim or the constant pile of laundry is just how He wants His home to be, today, for His good purposes.  If it were not so, it would not be this way.  And I can trust that the wickedness in my own heart and that which I experience in the hearts of all humanity which is not yet fully redeemed, is no more daunting than some placid lake water to Him.

 You have said, “Seek my face.”  My heart says to you, “Your face, Lord, do I seek.”  Psalm 27:8

Like Them

Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them.  If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.  Matt. 6:1

Whoa, if you take that command seriously, it is really indicting.  I mean, in the one six hour window each week that I have the laundry all put away and out of sight, I want everyone to know it, celebrate it and congratulate me…well, actually celebrate ME.  And that is the least of the righteous acts I want to be sure get some credit.  If I put myself out for a neighbor, (which by the way, I often consider simply opening our door when it is not convenient “putting myself out”), I surely want as many people as possible to know the sacrifices I make for living here.  When I used to babysit in high school, I would begin reciting the list of activities I had done with the children the moment the parents crossed their thresh hold.  I want credit.  I want approval.  I want to earn my reward and have it very clear to everyone who is cognitively functioning that I have really exceeded expectations in sacrificial service.  So is God suggesting that keeping silent about all of these awe inspiring acts of righteousness, perhaps even turning blue keeping them all inside, is the key to reward?

I have been blameless before him and have kept myself from sin.  The Lord has rewarded me according to my righteousness, according to the cleanness of my hands in his sight. Psalm 18:23-24

All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away.  Is. 64:6

“Why do you ask me about what is good?” Jesus replied. “There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, keep the commandments.”  Matt. 19:17

No person from Adam onward can speak the words of Psalm 18:23-24 except Jesus, the only one to keep the entirety of the Law without violating a single letter of it.  My reward isn’t based on my righteous acts at all, which are all so corrupted with my own selfish ambition, vain conceit, fear of people, need to be liked or approved of, egotistical and condescending attitude or pride, but on the righteous acts of Jesus alone.  The trick isn’t to just be falsely humble about all my great acts of righteousness so that I can then get my reward.  The truth is that as long as I keep thinking I’m earning my reward, I don’t have the faintest understanding of the gospel or my need for the life and record of Jesus to be substituted in the place of my life and record.

So, practically speaking, what has me thinking about this today?  Walter made a comment in his sermon Sunday about the choice to be downwardly mobile in order to raise the standard of living for others, and it was like coming to the surface for a gasp of air after being deeper underwater than you realized after jumping.  Of course!  This is what Jesus did.  He left his position of honor, glory, power, riches and familiarity with the Father to descend into the broken world of His creation where He was unknown, misunderstood, despised, falsely accused, used but easily abandoned and ultimately physically assaulted to the point of death.

Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. John 12:24

It is so ingrained in me from my socio-economic culture to be on top, to make the cut, to win, to impress, to be counted, to be inside and not out, to have a foot in the door, to be ready with the secret handshake (or insider’s language and references) that I have never really taken Jesus seriously that the first will be last and the last will be first.  I have actually believed that I could somehow be qualified for “first” in both worlds without being disqualified for that position in either.  But what if He really means it, that those who are on top now, apart from their righteousness being in the person and work of Jesus alone, will in fact be below the toothless, mumbling, body odor filled beggars who walk the streets of my neighborhood daily?  What if their externally obvious status to the world is a more accurate portrayal of all of our status before Him apart from the exchange of our record for His?  What if to be found in Him begins with being found in them?

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable:  “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.  The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”  Luke 18:9-14

That’s Karma, not the Gospel

My parents crossed a major milestone this past weekend as my dad prepares to join my mom in official retirement from long, beautiful careers in education.  Atlanta Youth Academy held its 8th grade graduation on Friday morning, which was also my dad’s graduation from 11 1/2 years of service there.   The following night, a barbeque was held in my dad’s honor at which an unexpectedly large number of former graduates showed up to thank my dad for his role in their lives over the years.  Many of them looked, in appearance, like the kids I see walking the streets in my neighborhood, and I was grateful to be given the corrective for my perspective to my typical assumptions about “those” folks in my neighborhood as I stood in the presence of these amazing kids.  It was a night that celebrated overcoming stereotypes and division for the future health of everyone involved.  My dad woke up the next morning, back in our neighborhood, to find his car window smashed and glass distributed so thoroughly over every part of the car that we both found ourselves bleeding just trying to clear to his seat of the shards.

Terrell, having just processed our own most recent car break-in, recognized his personal frustration that is would be Dad, who exuberantly gives to more  people without any prioritization of skin color, financial holdings or social status, who is the one to continually have his car ravaged (stolen twice) or flower pots stolen.  He then acknowledged, however, that thinking this way is karma, not the gospel.  The belief in karma is that good people will have good things happen to them and bad people will be paid back for the bad things they do.  It is because most of us somehow subscribe to this notion that we are so startled and undone when harm comes to us by the hands or words of another.  Our mistaken assumption is two-fold:  First, we assume that we deserve to be treated with mercy, kindness and generosity at all times and second that all people are inherently good and can be expected to make self-sacrificing choices to benefit others in most cases.  Instead, reality proves what the Bible has declared true about humanity from the beginning.

The LORD saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time.  Gen. 6:5

The serpent tempted God’s image to image itself (himself and herself) rather than God, to build one’s own image, to feed one’s own image, to serve one’s own image above all others.  In the past week alone, I have heard repeated in several different contexts the sentiment that different individuals must “look out for myself because nobody else will”.  This is not the ruling principle for a beloved child who belongs to parents who take full responsibility for them, but the mentality of an orphan.  When I determine to be my own god, determining for myself what is right and wrong according to the appetites of my own will, nobody around me matters as much as me.  I don’t care if the house is a mess if I need a nap.  I don’t care if I make my children cry by speaking harshly to them if I am stressed and in need of power and control.  I don’t care if I am disrespectful to Terrell if I can blame him for some trouble that might justify myself.

But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them.  For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander.  Matt. 15:18-19

In our neighborhood, selfish ambition and vain conceit shows up in the form of smashed car windows or physical assaults.  But this manifestation of a self-serving heart is only different in kind but not in value from the affluent, white businessman who is rude and condescending to the hostess or waitress at a restaurant because he is entitled to be served while simultaneously disregarding the dignity and humanity of the person before him.   Mockery of fat people, ugly people, poor people, country people, uneducated people is no more in line with imaging the humility, strength, love, mercy, nurture, compassion, self-sacrifice and dominion of God than the more physical acts of violence we see “in the ‘hood”.  In all these things, we see evidence of humanity that seeks to elevate self above others, disregard others for one’s own gain and prefer destruction and division to the flourishing hand of an expert gardener who toils to bring flourishing life.

If you, Lord, kept a record of sins, Lord, who could stand?   But with you there is forgiveness, so that we can, with reverence, serve you.  Psalm 130:3-4

The story of redemption is the opposite of karma.  The Good Man took all the repercussions for wickedness giving the wicked folks all the good He earned.  It tells of a people who rejected Goodness to worship themselves, who murder, lie and commit adultery in all forms and fashions.  It tells of a people who would rather slander, blame and make excuses than ask for forgiveness and seek restoration.  And it goes on to tell of only One who was Good, who received all the pay back for all the destructive, divisive, deadly behaviors and offered life, healing and peace in return.  As long as I continue to believe that people are basically good in need only of enough rest and food, I will continue to be discouraged by evidence to the contrary.  When I begin to recognize that no behaviors or attitudes will ever change apart from changed hearts, hearts that would rather belong to God than be orphaned, I may then begin to seek God’s hand of redemption rather than fretting over the solution on my own by my own power.

Stop grumbling among yourselves,” Jesus answered.  “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them, and I will raise them up at the last day.  It is written in the Prophets: ‘They will all be taught by God.’  Everyone who has heard the Father and learned from him comes to me.  John 6:43-45

What Am I Doing Here?

When I was a school teacher, I often joked that the job would be a lot easier without all the kids…and private school parents for that matter.  I’m sure doctors often feel their profession would be much simpler without all the whining, sick patients.  I guess most jobs would be more fun without the work.  And participation in God’s work of redemption would be far more appealing in a perfect setting and with people who didn’t really need to be redeemed.

But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.  Rom. 5:8

When Terrell called yesterday about our car window being smashed and his wallet stolen by kids he’d just corrected Chad from thinking looked like “bad guys” because that was playing into a stereotype, I just cried and cried.  I cried because I’m tired of crime and trash and entitled bullies and boarded up storefronts and houses with overgrown yards and kicked in front doors.  I cried because I was mad that those kids just totally reinforced their own worst stereotype.  And then I asked the question that is always the elephant in the room, for others before we came and with each moment of discouragement, “What are we doing here!?”

Of course, that is entirely the wrong question because it is based upon a false presupposition or two:  1) that engaging in reconciling work won’t actually require work or anything that actually is broken and in need of restoration and 2) any evidence that stereotypes of angry black men, dangerous street thugs, and boys in hoodies with nothing to lose might actually have arisen honestly will somehow undermine the redemption efforts…that sinners in need of redemption shouldn’t actually be sinful, wicked, corrupt, full of bitterness, division and self-serving wrecklessness.  I seem to want a redemption story in Scripture that is anemic, that omits the darkest, most violent, wicked realities of humanity.  I mistakenly continue to assume that Jesus came to folks who just need small adjustments not total regeneration.

Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind.  Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit.  Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.  In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.  And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross!  Phil. 2:1-8

It is the sick who need a physician, not the healthy.  It is the dead who must be resurrected to live.  It is I, united with Adam and Eve, who chose enmity with God and alliance with the serpent and will never move toward God until He declares my enmity to be with the serpent as He allies me with Himself after drawing me out from behind the tree.  It is God who seeks and saves the lost sheep…the wandering, clueless and stubborn sheep.  If He did not love me first, I would never love Him.

What am I doing here?  For starters, I am here for the very same reason His image has been sent to all places, neighborhoods, communities and nations since He made man in His image to begin with in the Garden.  He made us to image Him, in all creation, and then He lived, died brutally and conquered sin, selfishness, destruction and death so that He could image Himself through us.  There is no white middle class mother, thieving black kid on Johnson Road, grumpy old man at a Buckhead library, wide eyed child, award winning philanthropist, midwestern farmer or college professor more deserving of His grace and mercy nor outside the reach of His life giving, redemptive arm of total restoration.  It is in this place that I see a bit more of my truthful condition before God…I am no less self-serving, no less poor, no less needy, no less angry, no less distrustful and yet He left His home in perfection to move to what had become “the projects” of His creation.  In this place I see more clearly my need for Him, my dependence upon Him, and the incredible need outside of myself that only He can meet.  What am I doing here?  I am just beginning to take Him at His Word, all of it.

Lagging Behind

Where does weariness come from?  It is felt physically, in muscles and joints and bones, in the eyes and even at times in labored breathing.  Sometimes I feel it in my stomach or like every nerve in my body is exposed and raw, sensitive to even the lightest additional touch.  It shows up in these physical ways, but I think those are just the presenting symptoms of a mental and emotional raft with a major puntures.  It is hard to see the process in slow motion or in a linear way, but all I know is that by this past Friday, I felt like a piece of plastic floating on the water…plastic that may or may not have once provided hours of fun in the pool and riding waves at the beach.

Never mind the life context into which Friday fell, let me just tell you about Friday.  8:05 next door neighbor knocking at window to play, like most days since summer break began.  8:30 Martha Jane screaming about something she would like that we are not providing either because she can’t have it or we don’t understand her non-verbal, yet still vocal demands. 9:30 I actually consider grabbing a quick nap because I am already so exhausted I can hardly think straight.  9:45 doors and windows are being opened and closed to hollar in and out between my children and neighbor.  No quick nap.  Feeling a bit agitated mostly out of sheer exhaustion.  10:30 have finally gotten everyone dressed, cup of water poured all over the rug by Martha Jane cleaned up and headed to car.  Martha Jane then throws the front door open so wide that our dog gets out and refuses to be herded back into safety before we play a fun game of front yard and street chase for 45 minutes.  We take my mom to pick up her car and then head to the quiet, peaceful library, while receiving repetitive phone calls from neighbor friend who is playing with his grandmother’s phone.  At the library, we successfully and quietly gather our books, sign up for summer reading and are close to leaving when Martha Jane bursts into tears…within ONE minute of her tears, an old man reading his paper comes over full of disgust to tell me we are disturbing the entire library and I need to get THAT baby out of here!  He then glares at me as I stand resolutely until Ellie has finished her writing contest entry form.  Jerk.

Remember what the Amalekites did to you along the way when you came out of Egypt. When you were weary and worn out, they met you on your journey and attacked all who were lagging behind; they had no fear of God.  Deut. 25:17-18

I clearly have not been a slave in Egypt for generations nor have I been physically attacked for my own lagging behind, but I love that these verses at least give a picture to how I am feeling.  Way to kick me when I’m barely walking, old man whose newspaper reading was disturbed for a nano-moment.  And then (well, not right away, but the next day) I began to think about the way I think of others who are lagging behind, and how I too actually despise the weak rather than jump to show compassion or kindness or even offer strengthening mercy.  I have felt myself actually resenting the poor people who walk the streets of our neighborhood, either to a bus stop or the corner convenience store or ***at this very point in my writing, Terrell just called to say my car had been broken into at a nearby playground where he had taken Chad for a short father-son outing.  Window smashed, door dented and his wallet stolen.  Seriously?!?!?!  (Will process that on another post.)

So, sometimes there are just things to grieve.  There is a time for mourning.  There is a time for weeping.  There is a time to lie down, to cry uncle, to collapse on a bench in an elementary school garden when you are intending to be out for a long Saturday run (wait, I actually did that yesterday…and ate a delicious apple from said garden…thank you E. Rivers.)

Walter drew my attention to Jesus’ own mandate to mourn, “they will be comforted”…and that comfort is in knowing more of Jesus.  He is making all things new not so that now, in the brokenness, I can pretend things are fine but because He of all people knows things are really broken.  People, including me, are mean to each other because we don’t fear God. We all determine to be our own gods, determining for ourselves what is right in our own eyes…whether that looks like smashing car windows and taking wallets or running without restraint as children through a house, upturning all spaces along the way or just hating people we see walking along the road because they don’t dress or act the way we would prescribe.  Or if we’re an old man wanting to read a paper at the library or a weary mom taking out my own fatigue on the electric wheel chair driving down the road in front of me as if it had any business acting like a car.  Its just so much easier to divide, to despise, to judge, to recklessly destroy, to resent, to reprimand and judge…than to love, to heal, to encourage, to help, to pour out rather than take…

Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you.  This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you, I will not drink from this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom. Matt. 26:27-29

He poured out not just the air from His Raft becoming mere floating plastic, but His life blood.  To breathe and pour life into me.  The Lord is faithful and compassionate, slow to anger and quick in love.  While I was yet His enemy, He died for me.  I need to drink deeply of Him, to mourn deeply so as to grasp for His life more and to find comfort that the grumpy old men, the stereotypical neighborhood hoodlums, and the impatient and compassionless mama who writes this may all share equal seats at that banqueting table One Day.  May it be so soon.

Oh, and if you need a laugh or just feel that there is a bit of bad ass judment coming to your enemies, read the next verse of that Deuteronomy passage I posted above.  When the humble hope of redemption isn’t enough, sometimes a good dose of enemy smiting can bring a smile. (:  He will in fact make all things new, and it is going to be so good…even for those of us who are weary and lagging miserably behind.