Gospel Alarm

If you are hanging on to a rope in any type of dependent nature and you suddenly notice that the rope is frayed and splitting before your eyes, there is good cause for alarm.  When that rope is your own sanity, stability and general safety to others, the alarm can be seen not only in your own eyes but in the wide eyed, uncertain yet fearful eyes of anyone in the room.  Just to move from the hypothetical, I am that frayed rope that was popping in all directions this weekend with the drama of a good action movie and the sadness of a dark comedy.  If I could have turned green and burst out of my clothes, conveniently ending up in jean shorts, I would have done it.  At least yelling “Hulk Smash!” would have brought some humor to my otherwise utter failure to be anyone close to the kind of person I wish I were.

Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me.  But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.  2 Cor. 12:8-9

I think these verses are great if the weakness in focus is that I’m a bad speller, or am an athlete with a limp or asthma, or an artist who is color blind, or a public figure with a speech impediment.  Those weaknesses are easier to identify with this claim, that we boast in them because they give God an opportunity to overcome our limitations with His ability.  They demonstrate that it is not our excellence but His that ensures completion of His will.

But what about weakness being my loss of temper?  What about someone’s weakness with porn or alcohol or drugs?  What if my weakness is a loose tongue, gossiping without intention or control?  What if the weakness that I plead repeatedly to be free of is a weakness that harms others?  What if my weakness doesn’t just elicit compassion from onlookers but instead, great alarm?

Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess.  For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.  Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.  Hebrews 4:14-16

Jesus was tempted in every way that we are (exasperating people, one too many demands of service, physical depletion, to name circumstances that expose my weakness) and yet did not sin.  God’s word identifies the fact that we do, in fact, sin in our weakness.  The kind of weakness that grace is sufficient for isn’t merely the kind outside of our power, the kind that happens to us, but includes the very sin that requires our faith to cover.

When I respond in weakness in extremely alarming ways, (in contrast with pretty and palatable sin), I feel like I am plunging head long into darkness where I just might remain lost forever.  That, according to the person and work of Jesus, is precisely when my faith is the most necessary.  That is the very alarm that blares my need for Him like nothing else can.  Rather than being outside the reach of the Gospel, these dark places are the very thing for which He has come, in which He is working, and through which He promises to redeem us.

For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves,  in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.  Col. 1:13-14

The gift of grace, among other things, removes “alarm” from the condemnation of my sin.  I am surprised by my capacity for wickedness, selfishness, anger, hatred and so on.  God is not surprised.  I am surprised by my children’s behavior when not happily compliant all the time, by my husband’s behavior when not nobly strong and impenetrable all the time, and by the world’s divisions, brokenness and heartache.  None of this is surprising to God, however, and therefore He is not alarmed but instead long-suffering, persevering, compassionate, and committed to the restoration of all things.  If there weren’t alarming evidences of brokenness, there would be no need for a Redeemer.  My alarm is only evidence of my own lack of belief that I actually need Him.  Like Adam and Eve, I am horrified to have my eyes opened to my own helplessness, powerlessness and shame.  God, rather than being wide-eyed, pursues me and covers me in His robes of righteousness.

While there is still darkness on the earth and in my heart, I am no longer under its dominion.  It will flare up and threaten to overcome me, but He has overcome it.  It is His grace that restrains it and evidence of His work that I am not characterized by my sin all day every day.  His light will shine in my darkness, not just that outside of me but even the darkness in my very own heart.  He will complete the good work that He has begun, and that is something to boast in for certain.

In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.  John 1:4-5

Not Forgotten

I’m struck by how easily I forget God.  Its not a conscious rejection of God or denial of God or silent treatment.  Its just absolute “out of sight out of mind” utter amnesia.  I forget that He knows every single one of our expenses, every single relational interaction and dynamic, every single red or green light that we encounter, every single mental or emotional state and every single detail.  But it isn’t that He knows these things as one might brush up on current events or simply be puffed up with infinite data.  His knowledge is based on His design of all these details.  He knows all things because He created, designed and ordained all these moments, circumstances and interactions.

Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.  Psalm 139:16

I fail to remember that if, like Paul, I am shipwrecked or like Daniel, in a lion’s den, or like the man blind from birth who Jesus gave sight, that God orchestrated each of these seemingly isolating, accidental, arbitrary, condemning, out-of-control events to demonstrate His goodness, love, power, faithfulness, sovereignty and so on.  Even Jonah’s boating adventure, which seemed obviously a result of his own rebellion, resistance of God’s will, and disobedience was in fact a significant part of God’s story of His commitment to His people, demonstrating that actually even our most dramatic attempts at thwarting God’s plans just can’t do it.

You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.  Gen. 50:20

When our finances leave us anxious about filling the tank with gas, I feel shame and condemnation that somehow we haven’t been responsible or budgeted well enough or just I might just feel anxious and even panicked over how we’ll get to the end of the month.  I forget that even our irresponsibility, poor budgeting, or unexpected bills aren’t things that are happening outside of the gaze or redemptive intentions of my loving Father.  He does not shame to “teach me a lesson” because the burden has already been born by Jesus.  He does not exercise “tough love” to get me to be more responsible or righteous because the very change that I need isn’t something I can resolve to make happen by my own will.  Just because He is out of my sight and mind does not mean that I am ever out of His.  Every one of my days has been written in His book before one comes to be!

if we are faithless, he remains faithful, for he cannot disown himself.  2 Tim. 2:13

His commitment to me isn’t based on my merit but on His.  His concern and perseverance isn’t about the success of my will but of His.  Even when His people forget Him, He never forgets them.  He is telling a most beautiful story, a story of all things being made new, a story of life filling up dry and brittle bones and rising to dance!  And He is telling this story through every detail of my day.  Oh may I begin to see that, remember that more often, rest in that very good news and trust in His faithfulness even when I am unfaithful.

May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.  The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it.  1 Thes. 5:23-24

A Socially Acceptable Yet Biblically Unreasonable Question

From our neighborhood, the question has been asked, “Why do middle class white people want to live here?”, and it is asked sometimes with deep suspicion and sometimes just at face value.  From the more affluent part of town, the question to us is, “What made you choose to move there?”, sometimes asked with wide-eyed curiosity and sometimes with something akin to disgust.  To each I have a multitude of answers and no clear answer at all.  Sometimes I get all turned around, sometimes I feel I am doing something shameful or wrong to have moved here and sometimes I want to throw my arms up and say, “Who knows!”

Then yesterday, the confusion of the question became more clear to me:  it is entirely the wrong question because it isn’t the actual question meant by the inquirer.  So then I had my answer, “We are living here because we do not believe what underlies that question is Biblical.”  The question assumes that black people and white people should not be expected to live together, that upper income and lower income people should not be living in the same place, that people of varying socioeconomic backgrounds and positions would never reasonably choose to live together.

So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.  Gen. 1:27

Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ.  For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.  Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.

The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it,  so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other.  If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.  1 Cor. 12:12-14, 21-26

On one hand, I nod with these verses, fully agreeing with the necessity of all the parts of the body, all aspects of God’s image as He reflects Himself through the many tongues, tribes and nations, personalities, appearances and particular skill sets He has created in mankind.  And then on the other hand, I find it reasonable that we still group ourselves socially and geographically in such a way as to avoid the reality that we are not all the same body part.  “Well of course we can’t expect everyone to live in neighborhoods together, attend the same churches, go to the same schools or restaurants.  That isn’t realistic.”

God does not see one neighborhood as inferior to another in value because He does not value one people group over another.  We do.  I do!  I have bought in, hook, line and sinker, to the lie that I shouldn’t be expected to have equal concern for or suffer and rejoice with people who have a different physical appearance and view the world differently than I do.  I have believed the American value of self-promotion over the biblical value of being one with all of His people.  Have mercy on me.

After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.  And they cried out in a loud voice:

“Salvation belongs to our God,
who sits on the throne,
and to the Lamb.” Rev. 7:9-10

If this is how it is to be for all eternity in His Kingdom, may it not begin to be so, at least among His people, now as well?

Foreigner and Stranger

By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise.  For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.  And by faith even Sarah, who was past childbearing age, was enabled to bear children because she considered him faithful who had made the promise.  And so from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore.  All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth.  Hebrews 11:9-13

Stressful is the best adjective to describe straddling the two worlds in which I live, simultaneously.  In the world of my childhood and in which two of my children are back in school, it is not out of place for a school to host a children’s fashion show at Neiman’s as a fundraiser.  In the world of my neighborhood, a neighbor describing the startling possibility that the car he was driving with a gun under the seat (as he approached a police road block without a license) was likely a stolen car, is also a story not terribly outside of normal limits.  The “expected” in each arena is so vastly different from the other that it can feel like whip lash, like I’m constantly living out of body with dumbfounded looks on my face, a stranger or foreigner in both.  I don’t immediately identify with the stories told in either place, though the former is obviously more familiar and I can more easily pass as an insider there.  Neither world has much understanding of the other and in most cases barely have knowledge one another beyond stereotypes and condemning judgments from afar.

Honestly, even our church no longer provides that fully exhaling sense of “home” to me anymore as it increasingly captures only one of those two worlds rather than the tension between the two.  And, that is ok.  As I sat there yesterday morning, I was reminded that now is not the time to feel fully at home, as deeply as I long for that relief.  The story of the person and work of Jesus moving through the pages of redemptive history is a story of types and shadows, of anticipation and ultimately of gazing from a distance with assurance that those things promised will come to pass in Good time.

People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own.  If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return.  Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.  Hebrews 11:14-16

His Kingdom is made up of His image from every tribe, tongue and nation.  His reconciling work on the cross guarantees that One Day there will be no insiders or outsiders in His Kingdom, no division of rich and poor, no division of over-educated and under-educated, no division of cultures, terminology, lingo…no divisions.  The focus won’t be on the mirror, on myself, on how that person compares to this person or to me.  The self-absorption of my heart as inherited from Adam will be replaced by a fixation on the King of all Kings, and as a result, a reflection of His affection for all His people rather than a critique of them.  In the meantime, the stress I feel in straddling these particular cultures is merely a reminder that we aren’t there yet but oh don’t we want to be.  Perhaps a redemptive discontentment?

Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household,  built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone.  Eph. 2:19-20

He is the cornerstone, the rock, the foundation, the ark, my shelter, my covering, my tent and my home.  In Him and to Him, I am not foreign or strange.  May I increasingly see others through this lens as well, as neither foreigners nor strangers, whether consumed by boutique clothing trunk shows or crack and sex addictions.  He has called each of us who were “not His people” His beloved children.  And oh would the tension that I feel in the mean time only increase my faith in the One who will complete this very good work that He has begun.

Just as there were many who were appalled at him—
    his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any human being
    and his form marred beyond human likeness—
so he will sprinkle many nations,
    and kings will shut their mouths because of him.
For what they were not told, they will see,
    and what they have not heard, they will understand.  Is. 52:14-15