The Lord handed over Israel because of idolatry: “You have not obeyed my voice… .” How had Israel erred? By worshipping Baal and Asherah.

Gideon is beating out grain in a winepress to keep the wheat hidden from the Midianites, who were taking by force whatever food the Israelites produced. He was working in secret. Living hand to mouth made Gideon shrewd and resourceful, yet the angel did not appear to him in the first year but the seventh year. Why did God wait to rescue his people? Apparently, both Gideon and Israel had some lessons to learn:

Disobedience opens the door to oppression. God gives us boundaries to create the best kind of life for us. When we outsmart ourselves and try to live life apart from him. We settle for less.

An angel of the Lord appears to Gideon, and speaks, “The Lord is with you…”

[Have no fear. The Creator God stands by your side.]

“…O mighty man of valor.”

[Remember who you are—a warrior. Claim your identity. Live in the truth of God’s power that resides in you. I gave you not a spirit of timidity but of power and love and self-control.]

The angel calls out in Gideon what God has already placed inside of him. He resituates Gideon in the truth: the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is above all gods. His children have nothing to fear.

Gideon wrestles with the angel’s words. He even questions God’s faithfulness:

“Please, sir, if the Lord is with us, why then has all this happened to us? And where are all his wonderful deeds that our fathers recounted to us, saying, “Did not the Lord bring us up from Egypt?” But now the Lord has forsaken us and given us into the hand of Midian.” (Judges 6)

Gideon falls into the worn trap of blaming God for his suffering and that of his people. Why do we suffer if God loves us? If he performed signs, wonders, and miracles in the past and delivered his children from oppression, why has he abandoned me in this pit? If he is all-powerful, why won’t he soothe my pain, save my marriage, resurrect my sweet child from the dead?

The angel offers no answer. God gave Job no answer. I have a hunch that God will meet our balled-up fists banging on his door with similar silence. The answer, I think, is complex and only available to us in part. As revealed in Christ, our suffering becomes our glory. The cross we take up becomes an avenue of sanctification. I also think that we live in the world that we have created. We chose life apart from God. We rebelled. We broke trust, and now we live in a broken world that breaks us. We point the finger at God rather than at ourselves. 

My junior year of college, I read Walker Percy’s Love in the Ruins, and one particular passage still haunts me: 

The truth was that Samantha didn’t want to go to Lourdes and I didn’t want to take her. Why not? I don’t know Samantha’s reasons, but I was afraid she might be cured. What then? Suppose you ask God for a miracle and God says yes, very well. How do you live the rest of your life? (374)

We pray to see God. We pray for signs, wonders, and miracles to confirm that He is real and sovereign. We ask for an experience like Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus—something dramatic and irrevocable.

Let the scales fall from our eyes, and let us witness resurrections and restore sight to the blind. Allow us to speak in the tongues of angels, to cast mountains into the sea, to walk through fire unscathed. Make us freaks of faith. Sear true belief into our souls.

Tom Moore, Walker Percy’s protagonist, knew us better than we know ourselves. He didn’t deceive himself. His daughter’s miraculous healing would destroy his complacency. He wasn’t ready, and he knew it. Consumed with fear of change, he avoided an encounter with the Living God.

Do I truly desire authenticity? Am I ready for the many forms of martyrdom that follow miracles?

Jesus will wreck my comfortable life even as he saves my soul. Do I want the risen Son of God or a fairy tale?

Am I willing to take my cross and watch suffering turn my life to ash or do I want the easy hell of lukewarm faith?

If I let Samantha die, I never have to change.

courage

March 27, 2009

Courage.

Whenever I hear the word, I think of orange sherbert with an oily sheen in a metal tin. I think I carried this image away from The Wizard of Oz. The Cowardly Lion joins the journey to the Wizard to ask for some courage.

Boldness. Audacity. Cojones.

Isn’t that a great compliment to give and receive? “He’s gutsy.” We love to share the stories of moments when we shored up against evil or injustice or fear. Standing in the void.

I’ve heard courage described as the rarest, and therefore the most precious, of virtues. That makes sense to me. 

How many people do I know whom I would call courageous? What does that look like?

Courage changes with the person. We all have our own fears. The people whom I most respect are the ones who push into their fears, their wounds, and their insecurities.

Sit down and don’t move until you’ve written down ten of your fears. Or ask yourself what conversations you don’t want to have? Think about that person whom you need to call. Just the thought is enough to make you sick at your stomach.

Ask that girl out. Break up with that boyfriend. Move to a new city. Quit your job. Sing on a stage in front of people. Tell your friends that you love them. Write letters asking for forgiveness. Throw away pictures. Buy a motorcycle. Get your hair chopped off. Get a tattoo. Take guitar lessons. 

I am tired of being paralyzed by fear, hedged in, pushed down to my knees by the odds of failure or embarrassment. 

Courage. I want it. To admit that I was really angry or clinically depressed. To confess that I am in need, that I am lonely, that I am sick of being sick. Buy that trendy hat and wear it ragged. Be ruthless in your authenticity.

Courage is the spirit coming alive within us. Courage to fight despair and cling to hope. Courage to crack and cry out, “God, I cannot do it on my own. Where are you?”

Courage, oh, Father, give myself back to me. Make me fearless. Help me to stand for the right and as I ride the prow of the ship to take the spray in the face. Help me to stand firm in the face of death. Let not my enemies triumph over me. 

Give me courage to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. Courage to live with grace and power.

Deepen no darkness

March 25, 2009

Abba,

Give me strength and courage. Make me an oak and a lion.

Give me the Spirit of Christ, that I may receive wounds without giving them, that I may be a vessel of healing even to my enemies—those who embarrass, humiliate and betray me, those who snatch away my peace, those who erode my confidence, and those who obscure my joy.

Help me to relinquish the expectation that others should meet my expectations. 

Help me to listen well, with one ear to the heart of each person I am with and one to Yours. Help me to keep honest silence. Take my fears into your warm hands so that I can release my brothers and sisters from any obligation to calm my fears. Make my confusion fruitful. Create in me a clean heart, that I may be a safe place for others to air their own confusion, fears, and grievances.

Let me force no confessions, create no dissonance, and deepen no darkness.

Amen.

Ebenezers and Deserts

March 14, 2009

I was a month into my first semester at Lipscomb University.

After sleeping in, I walked over to the Student Center to check my mailbox. Through the glass on the rectangular brass door I could see the card. I already knew what this card meant: my new satchel from L.L. Bean had arrived. It was going to be a good day.

The person behind the desk in the small office handed me my package. I opened right there, threw away the mailer and bubble wrap, and walked upstairs. No one was around. Strange. Uncle Dave’s and the coffeeshop and the bookstore should be humming with activity. Where was everybody?

My grandmother, who was working in the bookstore back then, must have seen me walk by because she caught up to me while I was standing underneath the portico looking out on Bison Square and wondering why it was deserted.

“Did you hear the news?” She touched my shoulder then wrapped her arm around my waist. I put my arm around her shoulders. This is the way we’ve stood every since I grew taller than her.

“No. What news?” Now I felt my stomach turn over with the first hint of anxiousness.

“Some people flew planes into the twin towers and the World Trade Center.”

My mind failed to wrap around this information. She had to repeat herself and explain that the videos were on every news channel. Where had I been?

What alarmed me more than anything else is that after she shared this news—events that changed our world and the very fabric of our lives forever—I felt nothing. No fear. No sadness. No warm rush of compassion. I was devoid of emotion. She may as well have told me that the cafeteria was serving corndogs. Hundreds and thousands of people had just died and more would die to save the survivors, but I found no response in my heart but a curious emptiness.

This apathy disturbed me. I wondered what had happened to harden my heart, and that day, I began praying a prayer that I continue to give to the Lord:

“Let my heart be pierced with other people’s suffering. Soften me, open me, to their pain and fear, their insecurity and pressing need to be loved even while their lives are wastelands. Give me the strength to roll up my sleeves and work alongside you to turn the rubble into temples, ebenezers, altars of praise. When their hearts and faith are scorched, may you bring them hope through me.”

I have a bad habit of praying prayers before I fully understand their ramifications. The same thing happened two years later when my friend Taylor and I decided to pray for humility. He prayed for my humility, and I prayed for his. We knew enough about how sanctification works to know that brokenness leads to humility, and neither one of us could pray for brokenness with sincerity. God answers such prayers, I guess because they align with His Perfect Will for our lives.

He desires that we walk with one another through the valleys of dead bones, through the dark nights of our souls. He has certainly answered that prayer from my freshman year of college by resensitizing me to a groaning world full of hurting people. I struggle not to feel overwhelmed by such deep need. We are all so needy. Everyone I know is starving for love, and here God offers his love as a free gift and a way of life that leads to peace and wholeness—to shalom—and we pluck out our own eyes even as we pluck out the eyes of others.

O! I am filled with such a longing to be in the temple of God, ringing His praises off the flagstones, and O! I am eager for the return of Christ when his kingdom will come in its fullness and he will use the corner of his white robe to wipe away every tear.

Sometimes, I just don’t know what to do with myself because I feel like what I have to offer is never enough, and I can never cry enough tears to answer the thirst of every parched soul. God answered my prayer, and perhaps the pendulum has swung to the opposite extreme, and I am now too sentimental, too tender-hearted. I live in a new kingdom, and I don’t feel cut out for life as an alien in the old kingdom. 

Oh, Lord, thy kingdom come…Please let thy kingdom come. Before we all perish. Before fear, blindness, and pride, before the world we have created consumes us all. Give us water to transform every desert.

Please do something right now. We have nowhere else to turn.

Sweet freedom

March 13, 2009

When I was leaving my house this morning for work, I noticed a mockingbird in a skirmish with two bluejays. One of the bluejays gave up and flew away over the roof of the Church of God next door. The mockingbird and his other nemesis looped around and through the Blueberry Tree. They would both land as if to catch their breath before the mockingbird would lunge at the larger bluejay and they would begin their aerial combat all over again.

I’m unsure what kind of tree it was that was their battleground. My friend Caroline dubbed it the ”Blueberry Tree” simply because blue berries have begun to appear on the tips of its branches. Spring starts officially on March 21st, the Vernal Equinox.

Everywhere I see splashes of yellow, green, and pink. Delicate flower petals, new grass, and blossoms on the trees.

Rebirth.

We need it. Our moods are tied into the seasons. Sunlight keeps us healthy.

I wonder if the mockingbird feels it and responds in its own way—chasing the intruder around the block. That’s what was intriguing about the spectacle. The numbers were in favor of the bluejays, two to one. They are much larger than the mockingbird. Yet, he was routing them like a couple of amateurs.

He was bold. He was persistent. He was fearless.

He reminds me of Paul’s words to Timothy:

For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands, for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control. (2 Timothy 1.6-7)

Power and love and self-control. 

Maybe that’s where the metaphor breaks down. The mockingbird wasn’t loving on the bluejays. 

However, I still believe that we are the Blueberry Tree, the Spirit is the mockingbird, and the bluejays are anyone or anything that that tries to convince us that God is aloof, immobile, or impotent.

Again, I think of Paul:

You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. (1 John 4.4)

Jesus did more than disarm the dark powers of this world. “He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross” (Colossians 2.15).

What does that mean for us?

Hope.

We were dead, but now we are alive. We move and breathe in sweet freedom.

Complacency

January 29, 2009

I’ve been thinking a lot about complacency. I started a job on October 13 that I still like. Who would have thought that enjoyable jobs are out there. I’m paying off the credit card debt that I accumulated in graduate school. I’m paying all my bills on time. I’m trying to make my apartment comfortable without the help of my mother and two sisters who are much better at nesting than I am. I’m even putting a little money from each paycheck into a savings account and a Simple IRA.

In other words, I appear responsible. Perhaps I’m not building equity through home ownership, but a year ago, I wouldn’t have been able to explain what I meant by that. I do now. I have business cards, for goodness’ sake. I take my truck in for routine oil changes. I’m like good ole reliable dad without a wife or children.

How did this happen? I remember having a conversation with my parents about finances. My mother was trying to convince me that financial security was very important–and thus, very attractive–to most women. So, if I wanted to attract a good woman, I should practice more financial prudence. I think this conversation came up in relation to my sharing my plans with them for another adventure. My habit was to gut my bank accounts and travel to a far off country and take pictures and write poems and return knowing that the world was, in fact, my playground. After my mother tried to offer a reality check, I delivered what I thought was a brilliant counter-argument: the right woman would love me for who I was, not what I could offer her.

Now I see that both our points-of-view had problems. My mom was making a generalization, and I was more concerned with justifying my spending habits than thinking long-term. I criticized people my own age who followed the life-itinerary they accepted passively from Western culture or church culture or a “Christian” education: graduate high school, go to college, earn a degree, get a job, find a spouse, start making payments on a mortgage, have babies, and so on.complacency3

I resisted this itinerary. It seemed like unquestioning acquiescence to the status quo. Shoot, so many people get divorced these days that you’d think more young adults would get to know themselves and their motivations really well before entering a covenant relationship. When I get married, I want to stay married. I don’t want loneliness or insecurity or horniness or discontentment to drive my decision to spend the rest of my life with a woman. I want that decision to be about her. Sure, I’ll bring all sorts of hidden fears, wounds, and needs to the table. That’s unavoidable. We’re bound to blindside each other with junk from our families, past relationships, and sins. However, I’d like to think that deeper self-awareness might enable me to focus on what is within my power to change–myself, by the grace of God–rather than try to change her.

For example, I get irritable right before dinner if I’ve been drinking coffee all day. As the caffeine leaves my body, I tend to be negative and critical. I also need time by myself. If I don’t have some space for solitude, silence, and prayer on a regular basis, I don’t treat people well. I develop tunnel vision. I only see how people have failed and disappointed me. I take on a posture of defensiveness. If other people can’t meet my needs, I’d better protect myself from their needs. In other words, who I want to be gets turned upside down. I am most content when I am serving other. I most like being me when I respond with kindness, gentleness, and patience rather than fear, sarcasm, and criticism. When I die to myself, I gain myself. When I look after the needs of others, my own needs are met.

If caffeine withdrawal makes me irritable but I didn’t know it, I might point a finger at my wife rather than myself. Why did she forget to pick up milk? Why does she leave trash in her car? Why doesn’t she turn off the lights when she leaves the house?

sea11If solitude, silence, and prayer keep me centered in the reality of God-with-us in Jesus, then I will be much less likely to attribute my best friend’s failure to call me back to his lack of respect for me and other. I may have the grace to acknowledge that I am a victim of my own expectations rather than some grave injustice.

In his goodness, the Father provided me a job. I have shown my gratitude by saying, “Okay, God, I can take it from here.” Then, I mess up a good thing. I know that what I do is less important than who I am becoming. The Father is transforming me into a person who can meet others where they are without putting pressure on them to be who I want them to be.

My prayer is that I not wake up as a 45-year-old husband and father and realize my relationship with Jesus lost its intimacy and fire years ago, when I stopped trusting him for my welfare from moment to moment. I am afraid of that kind of complacency. Even more than a wife and family, I want to be a saint. I want to be one of the holy ones of God. I long for purity and holiness.

My deepest desires are for things that I cannot provide for myself. I hate to admit it, but I am in need. I have a need. I need Jesus right here, right now, to walk with me on the Way everlasting.