When I was training for a marathon, I would fill my pockets with orange slices in Ziploc bags. As weariness snuck up, one or two slices popped in my mouth would push it back and give me strength to press on another few kilometers. God's words and His encouragement sometimes come in bite-sized slices -impressions, experiences, encounters - and are just enough to push weariness back and keep us pressing on a little further...

Thursday, March 29, 2012

A Spring of Random Thoughts....

"Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!"   -2 Corinthians 5:17
Maybe it’s the spring.  Maybe it’s the first smell of shaved grass or the succulent colors of once-buried bulbs, maybe thickly blossomed branches and their pink and white confetti enchanting are to blame for these just as scattered thoughts.  Maybe.  Maybe my mind just wanders the length and breadth of eternity for fun.

There are things I’ve believed but never understood.  I assumed that’s what faith was about - seeing enough puzzle pieces laid side by side that I could accept the gaps, and could generally guess the picture without the box top.  But, something about spring makes me greedy.  Something about sun on the corner of my eye warming ear and chin and neck, the woodwinds of birds in the trees and a breeze sugared with the scent of soon to bloom honeysuckle that makes me hungry for understanding, makes me bold in my pursuit of a God who boldly re-paints the earth every orbit round the sun.  I want to know more.  I want to understand.  I want a belief breathless with unabashed wonder, a faith that leaps from height to height with joy unrelenting.

I think about autumn and spring and the beauty of wintery death in between them.  I think about the integrity of heaven and the perfection that defines it, the population of souls made right that define its appeal. I think about trees and gardens and why the Tree of Life is mentioned in Genesis and Revelation, before sin was born and after it will pass, unavailable to mankind when it seems we need it most.  Yet, God said that His eternal power and divine nature have been clearly seen, understood from what has been made, so He must have tucked the clues to His mysteries in every leaf and fruit and petal, under every rock and above every star, pulsing in every human need and love and desire.  Somehow, a tree that blooms never-ending life, and does not die hinders my understanding of a God who died for me.  The gnawing, spring-fueled hunger grows. 

I think about separation being the ultimate pain of death – as relational beings, nothing could hurt us more.  Some lives are buried so deeply in our own that the thought of pulling them out rips our souls to shreds.  To pay for our imperfections, our selfishness and our sins with such torn and bloodied sorrow seems a heavy punishment indeed.  But the wages of sin is death…

I search for clues again in thoughts of spring, in succulent colors bursting from bulbs that died to see them bloom, in once bare branches now thickly blossomed and scattering pink and white confetti enchanting.  They are trees that died yet live again.  Eden's Tree of Life that would not die could not reveal to me the necessary door of death, or the passage it opens to a different sort of life just beyond the hinge.

Sin fractures our souls in a way that cannot simply be patched – they must be completely dismantled and re-built out of in-fracturable material.  The integrity of Heaven cannot be maintained if populated by anything less.  Just as winter separates autumn from spring, death separates the old life from the new, the dark from the light, the broken from the unbreakable (“and we shall be raised incorruptible”). 

The punishment for our sin is not simply death as separation from every love buried in our souls.  It is the necessary door beyond which lies the hope of resurrection to every love reborn.  Jesus went through the process to show us how it works and because He knew we could not do it right ourselves.  Dying by my fractured self would only birth another soul subject to fracture.  Christ’s death substituted mine so I am re-made into a creature born of borrowed righteousness.  The fear of separation is no more.  A renewed soul enjoys renewed relationships, with both God and man enduring beyond the end of time.  Death, where now is your victory?  Grave, where now is your sting?

Death on this side of the door seems cold and dark and colorless.  But the door isn’t locked, and if you listen close, there’s a knock.  Maybe it's the life you always dreamed of with trees that never die.  Maybe it’s the spring.
"When my body lies in the ruins of the lies that nearly ruined me, will You pick up the pieces that are pure and true and breathe new life into them, and set them free? ...Will You make me new out of the stuff that lasts, stuff that's purer than gold and clearer than glass will ever be?  And, can I be with You?  Can I be with You?" -Rich Mullins

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Tears in Heaven...

“For, as I have often told you before and now tell you again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ.  Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things.  But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables Him to bring everything under His control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like His glorious body.”   
Philippians 3:18
There are dark places in our souls.  We’re not born with them, but sometime before we can speak our names and claim a toy as “mine!”, they’ve begun to grow.  A slow, spreading cancer, they seep into our thoughts, our words, our relationships.  The courses of our lives are mapped by choices they push us to make, by the rippling of choices others have made out of their own dark places.
None of us is immune, none of us has the power to defeat them.  We may deny the dark places, hide from them or call them by another name, but when we’re quiet and alone, we know they’re there. Pain or numbness, shame and fear - these are signs of their presence, little blue flames of loneliness creeping along the floors of our hearts.  Our bodies show scars of illness and brokenness, our minds, scars of anxiety and depression - the dark places wound and war with us until our bodies succumb.  Death is the cry of their victory.

It’s no wonder long-time inhabitants of earth, themselves stained by selfishness and greed, bearing scars of the dark places, discovered ways to keep the pain at bay. Temporarily, at least.  Drink to make the mind forget, a physical thrill to mimic intimacy, overindulgence in anything which made them feel valued or important by his or her own strength.  Distraction, entertainment, comparisons to one another - they would gladly try anything to forget the shadows of pure humanity lurking in their souls.  We, who have inherited their world, have inherited their tendency towards such defenses.

But we are not doomed to use them.  There is a greater defense against the dark places.  Darkness cannot exist in the presence of light - it’s impossible.  It’s a dynamic built into the fiber of the universe, another picture to help us understand the God who unbelievably claims us as His own.  When He turned up as Jesus on our shadowed planet, His friend John described it this way: “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).  Dark places in any soul simply dissolve when light of Life shines in.  The darkest moment in human history (the cross) threw open the shutters to everlasting morning.  Light is the greater victory.    

When Paul speaks of those who are living as enemies of the cross, he speaks of them with tears.  I can understand why, because they’re friends of mine, too, and I know how he feels.  They defend themselves against the dark places the only way they know how, and from their point of view, earthly things offer the only relief; of course they worship the god in their gut (“If it feels good, do it”), of course the only glory they understand is in their shame.  It’s in their blood.

Knowing Christ does not make me better than them - it only makes me honest.  I know the dark places hiding in my own soul when I am unwilling to let the light of Christ shine in, and I know who I am without Him.  It’s not pretty.  My citizenship is in heaven, but I was born into it when I was born into a new life, with new blood I didn’t pay for or earn.  Jesus did.  I, myself, was once darkness, as Paul reminds me in Ephesians 5, but now I am light in the Lord.  I should live as a child of the Light. 

This means many things.  It means that while I remain in this broken body on this broken planet, I will continue to war against the dark places in my soul.  It means that victory is my right (as a citizen of heaven), but the source of it lies not in my own strength - victory lies instead in my willingness to surrender to the Light of Christ.  It means that as His light shines in me, it will also shine through me, spilling out as words and actions which mimic Him.  It means I must be willing to face the dark places in myself and in those around me, loving them as Christ loves them, reflecting His light for His glory, whether any of them acknowledge Him or not.  It means I will share the true Light with everyone I know, loving them even unto tears, because I so desire their relief from dark places, not because it is my Christian “duty” to do so.

It also means that I eagerly await my Savior.  Someday, dawn will break on that everlasting morning and the war against dark places will finally be over.  My Savior will come for me, gathering my brothers and sisters who have also struggled with borrowed weapons for the sake of one another, who have also prevailed through surrender and we will be welcomed home - where we are safe, where we are known, where we are loved - with great gladness and joy.  All that is broken and scarred will fade into distant memory, our lowly bodies finally transformed into glory, forever and ever and ever.  This is our hope, our destination, the final result of our faith.  Souls will dance with the joy of it for eternity.  Until then, may the Lord, the Light of this universe, use us to bring His light into every dark place, no matter the cost, so that the ones we dearly love may join the dance and cry with us sweet tears of joy.  
“The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.”

2 Peter 3:9    

Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Art of Being Human

“And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God ask of you but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to Him, to love Him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to observe the Lord’s commands and decrees that I am giving you today for your own good?”
Deuteronomy 10:12-13

When my father was a boy, he and my uncle were fascinated with figuring out how things worked. As young curious boys do, they decided that the best way to conduct such research was by taking things apart.  Things like my grandfather’s car radio.  Unfortunately, while disassembling the radio did help them discover its million moving parts and unravel the magic of how the music played, it didn’t help them figure out how to put the radio back together again.  When my grandfather found out, silent car trips weren’t the only consequences to their unintentionally destructive quest for knowledge.

Over the last century or so, curious minds have been performing similar dissections.  Jazz music examined the harmonized melodies of band and orchestral pieces and stripped them down to their distinct individual sounds. When they rebuilt, notes were architected into a sum of their parts, rather than the swelling symphonic ensemble they once were.  The result, though very cool, was occasionally jarring and discordant. 

Art took a similar journey, dismantling faces and landscapes into shapes and colors, dots and angles, wandering down the hill of genre from Classic to Impressionistic to Abstract.  Arms and legs could occupy separate spaces on a canvas and still represent humanity, swirling swaths of paint could portray beauty or love or anger without any defining reference point except the intention of the artist.

Biology picked up on the theme of separation, as did psychology and religion.  In fact, medicine exploded and psychology thrived because of their newfound ability to take mankind apart and by examining each piece, figure out how the magic of the music played.

The dissection of man, like the dissection of music and the dissection of art, into original building blocks is, in itself, neither morally right nor wrong.  The danger lies in our capacity to rebuild.  We’ve taken ourselves apart, and we’re not sure how put us back together again.  We’ve forgotten what “whole” looks like.

Our faith has suffered the brunt of this unintentionally destructive quest for knowledge.  We’ve allowed ourselves to separate our minds from our hearts, our souls from our bodies.  Our beliefs are confined to a nebulous space inside of us we call our spirit and all prayers, groanings, hopes, intentions, and decisions are corralled inside.  The rest of ourselves we apportion out when we feel it appropriate.  Our faith comes on stage when we’re at church, our intellect runs the show at school or work, our heart steals the spotlight when relationships, sorrows, or sappy movies call, and our bodies do whatever feels best, no matter where or when they are called into action.

No wonder we feel like our faith isn’t relevant to real life.  No wonder we feel like we don’t belong anywhere – we’re not ever showing up all in one piece.  We’ve been stripped down to our distinct individual parts and the effect, while occasionally cool, can be jarring and discordant.

God calls us to be whole.  He designed all of our parts to work together as one integrated organism, not simply the sum of its parts.  We are to fear Him with our intellect, to walk with obedient muscle and sinew and bone, to love Him with our will, to serve Him heart and soul – our faith should cover us like skin, should run through every part of us like blood, carrying the life-giving oxygen of His power and purpose into every cell (did He not breathe it into us at our inception?  Does the reenactment of that holy respiration not bind us to life every moment of every day?)

My faith exists in fingers on a keyboard, a voice on the phone, and feet on the gas pedal.  My love for God lives in my knees and ears and too-busy mind intentionally quieted so that a voice desperate to speak might be heard.  Obedience to God cannot be corralled into a nebulous space in my spirit – it must be breathed into being, as I once was, into literal space and time and motion.  My intentions to serve God must bleed into actual physical obedience or I cannot call myself His servant.

We belong in one piece.  That’s how we were composed, how we were designed, how the Author of creation wrote us into history. Taking ourselves apart for examination is beneficial for discovering our million moving parts and how we function, but we must not remain disassembled, or we will forget why we function.  If we do, the consequences will be more than just silence - the magic of the music may be lost all-together.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Pressing On

“Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.  Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead,  I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”  Philippians 3:12-14 

The hardest part is putting on my shoes.  I’ve been running for a few years now, but I still wouldn’t call myself a runner.  A less than stellar track career in Jr. High (I may have gotten a black eye running hurdles and hit someone in the head with a discus) ruined any notion of claiming an athletic title.  Still, running is good for me - good for my muscles and my mind.  It’s my heart exercise, improving atria, ventricles and soul.  I’m not fast and sometimes my hips and heels complain, sometimes it takes everything in me to tie up my running shoes and walk out the door.  But when I do, God meets me there.  He dips me in His goodness and I come up breathless every time.

When I started, I could barely run for two minutes without stopping.  Four years later I ran a marathon.  Yesterday, I struggled through a mile and a half.  Neither past inadequacies nor past successes determine if I run today.  Putting my shoes on determines if I run today.

Our spiritual lives are similar.  There are things in our past which could cripple us if we let them, painful memories or experiences, guilt-ridden moments we can’t let go.  I used to let sin send me into a vortex of shame and hiding from God.  It could last for months.  I ignored Him, pretending that He didn’t notice, convincing myself that He wouldn’t want me around anyway, or that we’re both better off if we don’t see each other for a while.  The problem is that solution to sin isn’t mentioned anywhere in the Bible.  The options I’ve been given are to believe God means what He says when He offers forgiveness and restoration for my confession (1 John 1:9), or not.  To believe He chooses to be with me and has not rejected me (Isaiah 41:9-10) or not.  The option of allowing past sin dictate my present spiritual condition has not been offered.

And, just as I cannot live in the shadows of my past failures, I cannot rely on the spotlight of past successes to light up my present spiritual life.  There were moments I felt God near, closer than my own soul, moments I stood strong for Him and saw Him work in mighty ways.  Those were precious moments, but they are memories now.  I live in these moments, the ones the clock ticks by as I breathe and blink, and they could still go either way.

Paul talks of forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead.  He knew how crippling past pain can be and he knew contentment with past accomplishments was just as debilitating.  Our past may influence our present circumstances (every choice has a consequence, for good and for bad), just as a steady or an inconsistent running regime influences whether I am capable now of running one mile or ten.  But, my choice to run today, to live today, to serve God today is not made by looking backward, but by straining forward.  I am told to stop living in the past, throwing off everything which holds me back (Hebrews 13:1), and pressing on to take hold of that for which Christ took hold of me.

I’ve read that more times than I can count, and in the haste of familiarity, my eyes have always glossed over the bit of it that arrests me now.  “I press onto take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.”  Jesus took hold of me.  Wow.  I have no fancy spiritual explanation for that.  Just tender impressions on my heart: He grabbed me in His arms, He left heaven to scoop me up.  He rescued me, He knows me, He’s got me.  There is a prize, a gift so important that He dropped everything to run after me and call my name, to sweep me up, burying me deep in His chest.  The prize of His presence  seizes me and draws me heavenward.

And it is for that prize, that I press on.  I don’t give up.  I keep going.  No matter what happened before, I continue knowing Him, loving Him, sharing Him.  Serving, giving, listening, praying, sacrificing, running, running, running towards the One who ran to me.  Today’s present is tomorrow’s past.  Today’s broken world could be tomorrow’s paradise if we press on.  Today’s pain could melt into tomorrow’s healing if we press on.  Today’s sorrow could become tomorrow’s joy if we press on.  So, tie your shoes, my friend.  Put on your big girl pants, cowboy up, and forget what happened yesterday - tomorrow’s coming and it starts today.  Let’s press on.