Since my last poem, “October Fire,” I encountered “The Bright Field” by R. S. Thomas, a Welsh poet and Anglican priest of the last century. It’s theme of illumination is so allied to mine (though its poetic genius far eclipses mine) that I’d like to share it with you, that it might enflame and brighten your heart with hope. We are living in times that make us distrust the very leaders and experts that vie for our trust, and suspect the motives of those who claim to speak for the general welfare, for the sick, the poor and the oppressed. Our hopes have been misplaced if they have been placed on men and women. In the days leading up to our national election, let us pray that many will turn to the only true source of hope, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and reach out again to their neighbor on every street and every corner with grace and love.
The scene opens on the ancient grounds of Camp Pragmatics where newly arrived recruits stand uniformed and ready before Drill Sargeant Joe Lamech Skull, now in the middle of Company 666‘s morning drill.
I lift up my eyes
one day’s dawn closer
Love’s banners streaming
nail-scarred grace unrelenting
boundless praise flowing
a radiant crescendo
jeweled vision before me —
Psalm 84: 5-7 NIV
Blessed are those whose strength is in you, whose hearts are set on pilgrimage. As they pass through the valley of Baka, they make it a place of springs; the autumn rains also cover it with pools. They go from strength to strength, till each appears before God in Zion.
But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. (2 Cor. 7-11, ESV)
Father, before you I kneel in dismay
Ashamed I’ve grieved you again today
Aware that this handful of dust and clay
Rescued from darkness to eternal day
Betrayed your love, from You turned away:
O forgive me, I pray!
Driven by discontent and greed
All I could see was my own selfish need
Taking me swiftly where You do not lead
Enticing in thought, and word, and deed
Faithless to endure and your word to heed:
O Spirit of God, help me!
Nothing I do will right my wrong
Against You I have sinned and oh how I long
To be set free from guilt so strong
Blinding me to whom in love I belong
Who over death my victory won:
My hope rests in Jesus alone!
For His is the blood that washed me clean
His death on the cross covered all my sin
His is the power that sets me free to begin
Humbly to walk with You again
Trusting the word of my sovereign King
For life abundant united to Him!
Amen. Even so, come, Lord Jesus!
Ash Wednesday was originally the day in the church year when people who were ordered to show public penitence for their sins began forty days of penance—outward displays of inward repentance. Sometime around the end of the first millennium the practice became more general. The symbol of this was marking the forehead with ashes. It was the sign that a person had begun a multi-week fast, with forty weekdays included. They were now setting out on an internal journey of the spirit that would end only with the celebration of Christ’s resurrection at Easter. The message was visible on their faces” (Sinclair Ferguson, To Seek and To Save).
In my lifetime of walking with the Lord, I have met many weak Christians and a few mature ones. The latter always catch me off guard, so humble are they that it’s sometimes easy to miss them. I would like to think of myself among the latter but I have to live with myself and know better. So I keep praying for wisdom.
In general weak Christians fall somewhere between two extremes: those who carry their doctrine into the world in order to preach it or those who leave their doctrine at home in order to conceal it. The first group tend to be legalists and the second group antinomians.
The legalists take their doctrine and shove it in people’s faces, much like the Pharisees. So the biology professor who is a legalist will continually enter into disputations about creationism versus evolution, and make sure that everyone knows how doctrinally pure he is. He professes his doctrine but notably fails to live it. He keeps to the letter of the law and doesn’t live up to its spirit.
The antinomians take their doctrine and keep it closeted in the private sphere, so that their dealings in the world are indistinguishable from those of non-Christians. They compartmentalize their lives to such an extent that they freely transgress and justify their worldly-mindedness by claiming freedom from the law.
What both categories of weak Christians share is a distrust of God and a high degree of trust in themselves. The legalists are performance-based, trusting in their own works not God’s work on the cross and through the Spirit in them. The antinomians rely on their own partaking of the grace of God through the cross to complacently forego their reverence of His law in every aspect of their lives.
Neither one places her full confidence in God. And by so doing they fail to trust in Him at all. The Gospel is a tool or a plaything, to be used at will, not a way of life. One eye is on Christ Jesus, the other on circumstances.
A mature Christian is not so double-minded. She has relaxed her claim to herself, and committed herself wholly as a “living sacrifice” to her God and Savior. There is no holding back of anything. And she brings nothing but herself to the Cross to which she clings. And in her life “now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor. 13:13).
The world tells us that our identity is always in flux and applauds those celebrities that “reinvent” themselves to achieve greater success. Someone who is “evolving” into whatever is touted to be accepted modes of thought and behavior can expect to be embraced by her peers in the workplace and rewarded by society.
But is this relativized approach to identity of ultimate benefit? Even humanists can see the pitfalls involved for the individual. As Jung put it, “The world asks you every day who you are, and if you don’t know, it will tell you who you are.” One of the most famous maxims the ancient Greeks gave us is “Know thyself.” Continue reading “Whom Do You Serve?”
O Love that came down from heaven
Of Your glory I have glimpsed
Tides of mercy as you raise me
Even now to dwell with Thee.
Draw my eyes from worldy idols
So my sight is clear and free
To behold Your holy radiance
And always only worship Thee.
Wondrous, gracious are Your works, Lord
These I ponder with delight
Trusting, finding grace sufficient
As I daily walk with Thee.
Bread of Heaven, feed me ever
In Your kingdom as I am
Granted riches from Your table
Heavenly food from Your dear hand.
Roll over me, Cloud of Glory, majestic mountain of Light
Clothing the enthroned Godhead!
Touch me with the Fire that no Promethean labor avails
To impart but the Love-enflamed Spirit!
A spark from Thee to this dry timber of my heart
Would burn wiry vines of Satan’s lies, noxious fears,
Corrupted roots, and leave unharmed the tender growth
Of life reborn, fed by living water and the Word,
To fruition of Abundance, a banquet of Life Eternal
Before the Most High God!
So Thou has promised, so let me receive
The fulness of Thy outpouring
Grace upon grace
That loosens tongues of gladness
And sets free faith
Till Heaven opens
On this child of the King!
This morning I read chapters 12 through 14 in the book of Job, the words of a man alternately addressing God and his deluded comforters in the midst of his suffering. Immediately after, I read the first chapter of Luke. The juxtaposition of the two readings left a strange sensation, a net of chiaroscuro, light and shadow, the sunrise of salvation and the nihilism of pain.
Oddly, there came to my mind, Agatha Christie’s psychological novel, Absent in the Spring, and Shakespeare’s sonnet from which it drew its title.
From you have I been absent in the spring,
When proud-pied April, dressed in all his trim,
Hath put a spirit of youth in everything,
That heavy Saturn laughed and leaped with him,
Yet nor the lays of birds, nor the sweet smell
Of different flowers in odor and in hue,
Could make me any summer’s story tell,
Or from their proud lap pluck them where they grew.
Nor did I wonder at the lily’s white,
Nor praise the deep vermilion in the rose;
They were but sweet, but figures of delight,
Drawn after you, you pattern of all those.
Yet seemed it winter still, and, you away,
As with your shadow I with these did play.
Caught in the pain of loss, the poet’s world is colored by it. What used to penetrate his senses with beauty now sharpens the knife’s edge of absence. Everything is a shadow of what it once was or ought to be and he is deeply aware of it.
Not so the narrator of the psychological Christie novel. She is absent to her own loss, that is, she doesn’t know what she’s missing. For a brief time an awareness of her loss, her failure to “be there” for those she claims to love, all of life that she’s failed to see and missed, cuts into her consciousness. Her grief is almost unendurable and she is overwhelmed by regret. She determines to change and make amends. But the moment passes like a mirage in the desert heat. She returns to her narcissistic life “absent” once again, oblivious to the misery of those who need her the most.
The pain of loss absorbs Job’s consciousness. But he engages with God through it all. While his “comforters” try to justify his suffering, Job goes straight to the One who can get him though it. He will not “curse God and die” as his wife advises. He will not absent himself to his suffering. He will neither deny it nor flee from it. Instead, in his suffering he looks for God. He remembers who God is. He knows that whatever the season, the summer of abundance or the winter of loss, God is unchanging, steadfast in love and faithfulness and sovereign in power. This knowledge emboldens Job and shores up his hope so that he doesn’t fall into the despair with which Satan tempts us during hard times.
It is the first chapter of Luke that puts it all in perspective. This is where Christ’s birth is announced. Zechariah breaks into a joyful song of expectation and Mary bursts into a paean of praise as her spirit rejoices in God her Savior. Jesus’s birth breaks into history, the history of the world and our own personal history. His birth is pivotal to our understanding of temporal loss because His birth is the moment in time when the eternal becomes more real, more true, more present than absence caused by loss, whether the loss of health or loss through death.
His presence overtakes the absence. His reality in history, in the flesh, through His death and resurrection, overshadows everything. Eternity trumps the temporal. And by the word of God through the Holy Spirit we glean it daily as God who suffered here on earth suffers yet with us, making more real to us the glory that awaits us when we see Him face to face.
Praise God for that day!
Job 19: 25 (NASB)
“As for me, I know that my Redeemer lives, And at the last He will take His stand on the earth.”
2 Corinthians 4:17-18 (ESV)
For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.
Hebrews 2: 14-15 (ESV)
Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.
To ask Him if He sees, when He made the eyes
that angrily accuse;
To ask Him if He hears, when He made the ears
that ring with raging accusation;
To ask Him if He is mute, when He made the mouth
that spits hurt challenge;
To ask Him if He knows, cares, desires to stem
the flood of misery
When He knew, cared, desired enough to bear
To ask and then grieve to ask
And in my grief to fall abashed into waiting arms
again, and yet once again,
To ask, “O God, how great is Your lovingkindness!”
And I said, My strength and my hope is perished from the Lord:
Remembering mine affliction and my misery, the wormwood and the gall.
My soul hath them still in remembrance, and is humbled in me.
This I recall to my mind, therefore have I hope.
It is of the Lord‘s mercies that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not.1
Our family devotions have centered around the book of Job for the past few weeks and considering the upheaval of plans and difficult transitions for each one of us in different ways, it has been fitting and it has been a blessing.
There are passages of time where the universe seems to collapse into the cramped space of one’s own trials. Those are the times when our conversations with God are not only intense & often wrought with a sense of overwhelming frailty, but also liberating as worship leads us upwards into the infinite, omnipotent throne room of our heavenly Father.
In such a place of holiness and sovereign love, our weaknesses, our fears, our impoverished faith are of no account. There we can freely ask the immortal, invisible God to do for us what we cannot. I wrote the following in deep wonder at the truth rediscovered time and time again that, in Christ, we can even ask Him to plead for us.
Plead for Me
Holy Savior, plead for me, a crippled sinner, lame of tongue
Ill-begotten in the night, a rebel to Your sovereign power.
I would throw off the shackling chains that curb my pride,
Restrain my steps, and lead to humiliation’s lonely way.
Yet here I see Your riven form, the crown of thorns,
The nail-pierced flesh. Here alone I hear the cry
That tore the temple veil in half as One forsaken
For my sins bore the wrath that I deserved.
Where then is shame, where then is grief
If not borne by You for love of me?
So all my fears shall be dissolved if You, my Lord,
Would yet plead for me.
We all search for heroes and heroines, and some even find them, only to discover their clay feet. When we see faults of different proportions in our Christian brothers and sisters, we tend to be less forgiving with them than we are with those who aren’t of our faith. Yet the same God who works in you to transform you into the likeness of Christ, works in me to do the same. And as we disappoint one another, even betray one another, we must love each other, hating the sin all the while.
Such sin we can see so clearly in others. But our own we so often fail to see until we are forced to. On some sin-encrusted surfaces of our lives, the grace of God melts and molds us easily to conform to His image. On others which are more obdurate, our stony footholds of sin must be hammered away by the heavy blows of suffering until we are transformed.
A feast of rest, a feast of praise
Fills my heart, my mouth, my days;
A Sabbath feast of prayer and love
A shout of “Hallelujah!” to God above.
O let me never from this feast descend
But ever by Your Spirit ascend;
Hold me, Father, with Your right hand
As by faith on holy ground I stand.
Ushered in by Your Son’s call
To the festal celebration hall
Joy abundant and peace unfettered
From Your table I am fed.
Should I stray from Your dear presence
Let me quickly feel Your absence
And in Your grace, rejoicing always,
Before Your table find my place.
Hebrews 12: 22-24
But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.
“I never had a mother,” Emily Dickinson wrote. “I suppose a mother is one to whom you hurry when you are troubled.” But where mothers fail, God never fails. His is a mother’s touch that is always ready to receive, ready to lift and comfort, ready to provide what is needed. “Can a woman forget her nursing child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you” (Is. 49:15).
On a sunny day to feel so cold
or to be joyless in the moonlight
alone with demons that circulate in the air
like dust motes no one else can see
but the prisoner engulfed by placid Hades—”of suffering
the Old Masters were never wrong”—
agape in excess, empty of hope.
I cannot feel the sunlight’s burst or the moon’s
pale rays but this I know in my darkness:
enthroned on high in the heavens
my King reigns in whose power lie the visible
and invisible, Who holds sway over all,
yet undertakes to dwell with me
to deliver me from hell.
¹line from W. H. Auden’s Musée des Beaux Arts (poem)
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
I wonder, have you reached the point in your Christian walk where weakness is strength? Where your weakness becomes a source of joy? If you have, then you have found true humility and more: you have found wisdom. And wisdom is a Person. Jesus Christ.
As C. S. Lewis puts it,
It is easy to acknowledge, but almost impossible to realize for long, that we are mirrors whose brightness, if we are bright, is wholly derived from the sun that shines upon us.…Grace substitutes [for hubris] a full, childlike and delighted acceptance of our Need, a joy in total dependence. We become “jolly beggars.” (The Four Loves)
Joy in total dependence? It goes against the grain of our tendency towards self-reliance. In our pride, complete dependence is anathema.