Do the Work

David also said to Solomon his son, “Be strong and courageous, and do the work. Do not be afraid or discouraged, for the Lord God, my God, is with you. He will not fail you or forsake you until all the work for the service of the temple of the Lord is finished.  1 Chron. 28:20

The Temple of the Lord, as we learn by seeing how this story plays out, is Jesus.  He is the temple that will be destroyed and rebuilt again in three days.  He is the One in whom all of God’s glory dwells and He is the One who has wrapped us in Himself so that we are part of His body, sharing in His life as we are swallowed up into it.  But as long as it takes to read from Chronicles to Matthew, it certainly takes longer for the events in and between each paragraph to transpire.  And for this reason, God must remind His people, us, me, over and over and over again not to get discouraged.  He will not forsake His Temple, His Body nor His glory. Be strong and courageous.  Do not be afraid.  “For I…”

It is not that I can be strong and courageous because I am never wrong, or coming with the wrong motives, or saying it with poorly chosen words or doing it clumsily or recklessly.  Because my heart will always have a strong pull toward self-preservation, self-glorification and self-justification, my courage isn’t based upon me at all, but in all cases it is based upon the “I Am” actor in the scene.  God will not fail to accomplish all of His good will.  God will not step away until His work has been completed, at which time rather than stepping away, He will dwell with man again, physically, in perfect harmony.

Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the Lord your God goes with you;  he will never leave you nor forsake you.  Deut. 31:6

“Because of them”.  Those are weighty words because “they” are so influential and quite honestly, kind of like playground bullies.  No matter what is said, its just hard to avoid fear of man.  The judgments and opinions of others are powerful.  I am not only easily terrified “of them”, I am willingly diminished by “them”, silenced by “them”.  A blank stare or a resistant response is all that it takes to turn my heart to water and my bones to ash.

But He comes to me, in my ashes, and says, “talitha koum”, little girl, wake up.  Be strong and courageous, and do the work. Do not be afraid or discouraged, for the Lord God, my God, is with you.

Formless and Empty

It has finally occurred to me that I need to acknowledge that I am not as mentally or emotionally respectable as I have always believed, not as positive and optimistic as I have always intended and, at the end of day, as I was reminded from Tolstoy’s quote about unhappy families being unhappy in their own way, I too am an individual deeply unhappy in my own way.  I don’t “keep on the sunny side, always on the sunny side” of life.  I don’t like everybody.  I don’t see the best or assume the best of other people’s motives and I am painfully aware of the wickedness of my own inclinations, motives and preferences.  I see the darkness in me in a way that seems to exclude the Gospel altogether.  As a matter of fact, my theology often gets in the way of my honesty.  I feel the darkness dropping heavily upon me, surrounding me and I succumb to it with sadness but not much resistance, anymore.

He has driven me away and made me walk in darkness rather than light;
indeed, he has turned his hand against me again and again, all day long.                                                                                                 He has made my skin and my flesh grow old and has broken my bones.                                                                                                   He has besieged me and surrounded me with bitterness and hardship.                                                                                                     He has made me dwell in darkness like those long dead.  He has walled me in so I cannot escape;                                                he has weighed me down with chains.  Even when I call out or cry for help, he shuts out my prayer.                                         He has barred my way with blocks of stone;   he has made my paths crooked. Like a bear lying in wait, like a lion in hiding, he dragged me from the path and angled me and left me without help.  He drew his bow and made me the target for his arrows.  He pierced my heart with arrows from his quiver.  Lam. 3:2-13

His love for me does not mean that I get whatever I want, that I get to be the exception to the rules or the statistics, that He will open for me doors that men have shut.  His intentional creation of me as a purposeful body part does not mean that I get to know what that purpose is or that the intention is apparent to me.

One of you will say to me: “Then why does God still blame us? For who is able to resist his will?” But who are you, a human being, to talk back to God? “Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’” Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for special purposes and some for common use?  Rom. 9:19-21

Maybe my biggest problem is that I never dreamed, as a little girl, of growing up to become “common use”.  I always wanted to become a special purpose.  My Wonder Woman Underoos were only the beginning.  My lasso of truth and invisible jet were just the icing on the cake.  It doesn’t matter that theologically I know the “special purpose” is Jesus and not me.  I thought maybe we’d make a great team, co-leaders if you will, better yet, the new inhabitants of the League of Justice.  But Jesus is fully complete with the Father and the Spirit.  And it turns out, I’m not quite the match for the bad guys that I imagined as a little girl in costume.

  Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.  Gen. 1:2

Perhaps I am now like that first earth, formless and empty with darkness covering the surface of my depths.  He makes me dwell here like those long dead, holding me down with chains, walling me in, shutting out my prayers and piercing my heart with his arrows.  Yet like that first darkness, the Spirit of God is in fact hovering, yet unseen and unheard and still, to my experience, unnoticed.  What creation will follow, and when Light might break forth, I do not know.

Stuck in Traffic

Theologically, I embrace mess as the reality of a life truly being transformed by Grace.  But practically, I don’t care for it at all.  If I get in the car, for example, I like to know where I am headed and the most efficient way to get there, which means minimal traffic and shortest route.  I really don’t want to get lost or take the road with only one lane opened because of construction or be sent on a detour.  Such delays are frustrating and not only add to the soreness in my seat but grow the anxiety in my chest.

Now, take that image and set my car on practically empty in one of those small towns on the way to the beach, but remove the “on the way to the beach” part.  That is the setting of my internal life these days.  And my internal response?  It is perhaps like one plagued with severe anemia.  There is still some anger as an indicator of life within, but the will to fight – or even the object of my fury – is unclear and almost imperceptible.

Yet you brought me out of the womb; you made me trust  in you, even at my mother’s breast.  From birth I was cast on you;  from my mother’s womb you have been my God.   Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help.  Many bulls surround me;  strong bulls of Bashan encircle me.  Roaring lions that tear their prey open their mouths wide against me.  I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint.  My heart has turned to wax;  it has melted within me.  My mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth; you lay me in the dust of death.  Psalm 22:9-15

I suppose the Psalmist are more honest in admitting that my only real foe is God.  He is the One who created me, drew me to Himself, caused me to trust Him and has told me what to believe about Him.  Had I never known Him, had I never believed in the wild possibilities of His Kingdom and His reign, I would never have felt the dissonance of a world in need of all He promises.  Had I never believed, His silence and absence wouldn’t feel so utterly empty.

This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.  Acts. 2:23

The wicked men did a wicked thing, and yet they and their actions were ordained deliberately by God to accomplish His GOOD will.  So, on one hand, I suppose that is comforting in the fact that even wicked people can’t thwart God’s redemptive purposes.  The bad news, particularly for Jesus in the case mentioned above, is that for God’s good and redemptive plan, they accomplished their cruel and painful punishment of Jesus.  So can we be angry at the instruments of God’s work, may we be angry at God for choosing to redeem through suffering, or do we respond in some totally other manner?  Delight?  I don’t think so because that would be tantamount to denial.  Not my will but yours be done?  I guess.

Then he said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.  Matt. 26:38a

Take this cup from me, Jesus prayed with a sorrowfully overwhelmed soul.  Few people know that kind of anguish, yet most of us ask for “this cup” to be taken away.  How do we continue walking through the valley of the shadow of death, even when the shadows are entirely confined to our inner-experience?

But now, this is what the Lord says— he who created you, Jacob, he who formed you, Israel:
“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;                                                                                                      and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you.                                                                   When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze.                          For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior;  Is. 43:1-3a

 

Beloved Prostitutes

We “met” another “neighbor” last night on a family walk around the block.  But let me back up just a little bit.  We had just finished dinner with a friend and as we sat on the front porch, enjoying what finally felt like spring weather in mid-May, I commented on the peacefulness of our neighborhood and the frustration that everyone perceives it as so scary.  Armed with roller blades, skateboard and the dog on her leash, we decided to enjoy the lovely evening with a family stroll.  As we got to the end of our short part of the street, a BMW SUV blaring music (not unusual) drove past with a white college boy and an Auburn license plate (unusual).  The reality is, though I hate to admit it, you can still identify those who “don’t live here” and worse, the reason most of those outsiders have made a stop in the neighborhood.  It isn’t usually to plant flowers or to visit a shut in.

As we continued on down the street, we had some invigorating short visits with neighbors we know and love.  Then, we passed the ominous two houses that everybody seems to know as the drug and prostitute houses.  Sure enough, cars were pulling in and out even in our short walk.  When a white girl, with messy hair and clearly crack abused teeth passed us on the way to those houses, all parties were a little surprised.  She affectionately acknowledged Ellie with a “hey chica” just before cussing out the guy we’d just passed in front of said houses for being late.  She could also be overheard (because she was yelling) telling him not worry about us but to deal with her.  Hmmm.  There was another dramatic exchange between the two in front of our house an hour later and then, this morning as I ran down the busier street around the corner, sure enough there she was again, and there he was waiting in a parking lot for her.

Yet the Israelites will be like the sand on the seashore, which cannot be measured or counted.  In the place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ they will be called ‘children of the living God.’  The people of Judah and the people of Israel will come together; they will appoint one leader and will come up out of the land, for great will be the day of Jezreel.  Hosea 1:10-11

The “yet” is that Hosea was to marry a prostitute, Gomer, who was certain to be unfaithful and grossly adulterous.  Her wickedness made her justly identified as “not my people”.  But God was telling a more extraordinary story.  He calls her, and Rahab, and me, “children of the living God”.  Teeth yellowed by crack abuse, a body trashed by dirty and hateful men, and choices not to escape but to settle in to this lifestyle because on some level, its just easier.  To God, these women, and ultimately the rest of us as we see ourselves in them, are His Beloved.  He sees past the teeth and hair, past the dead eyes and the bitter words, past the mismatched and ill fitting attire to the heart of the one he loves.

But now listen, Jacob, my servant, Israel, whom I have chosen.  This is what the Lord says—
    he who made you, who formed you in the womb, and who will help you:                                                                      Do not be afraid, Jacob, my servant, Jeshurun, whom I have chosen.                                                                        For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground;                                                                     I will pour out my Spirit on your offspring, and my blessing on your descendants.                                              They will spring up like grass in a meadow, like poplar trees by flowing streams.  Some will say, ‘I belong to the Lord’; others will call themselves by the name of Jacob; still others will write on their hand,          ‘The Lord’s,’ and will take the name Israel.  Is. 44:1-5

One

When things feel out of order or in any way chaotic, it becomes imperative for me to impose new structures.  As mentioned on numerous occasions, I come from a strong culture of achievement oriented living.  We achievers like measurable goals, proven metrics to evaluate success, constant assessment of progress and accomplishment…and if we can wear a t-shirt that tells everyone about our mission in two to three words, all the better.

Unfortunately for me, God does not seem as impressed by this framework for living.

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean.  In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.  Matt. 23:23-28

Writing a check, though certainly painful in one way, does not require me to genuinely feel merciful affection for the one to whom I give the money.  In fact, it often makes me feel smug, superior and like I’m pretty impressive.  Is it faithfulness to God’s provision that I disperse what He provides or is it faithfulness to my own reputation or score card?

Cleaning the outside of the cup and dish, like making my home ready for guests, can be to make my guests feel more restful and at ease.  But it can also be a self-indulgent monument to Self for others to be impressed by my home rather than lavished with undivided attention so that each guest feels my genuine interest in his or her story and life.

In our own neighborhood, it is so much easier to plan a cook-out for the whole neighborhood than to make time for one neighbor, celebrating any evidence of God’s activity and faithfulness in his or her heart.  The former appeases my achiever need to have something to show for my existence while the latter directs the spotlight onto God’s.

“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’  Matt. 25:40

Ward Brehm, who I heard speak when he was the head of the Africa Fund which directed U.S. Federal money to AIDS work in Africa, highlighted the fact that Jesus says, “ONE” of the least of these.  How did I come to marry “go big or go home” with Jesus’ exhortation to serve rather than be served?  Maybe its that photo ops make me feel that I can do both service to others while serving my need for recognition and approval at the same time?  Jesus repeatedly told those He served, “Tell no one!”  Jesus poured Himself out of the Love He already had in the Father and Spirit.  I tend to pour myself out to attain that validation, affection or position.  The latter is self-serving while the former is Love.  I look at the outside, God looks at the heart.  I want fruit that impresses even if by waxy finishes and genetic modification, but He creates fruit that lasts.

You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. This is my command: Love each other.  John 15:16-17

The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life, and the one who is wise saves lives. Proverbs 11:30