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.
“He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.” (Ecclesiastes 3:11)
It’s not time that drips so slow
through the coffee grinds of the past
that percolates in the heat of memory
now distilling the sweet and bitter
into a narcotic pool of the half-remembered.
It’s not space that encroaches
into visions that come in the night
to shake the weary from slumber
and snap the mind to stark awakening
in the light of the inexorable coming.
It’s eternity placed in the center of being
robbing the world of its threatening specters
carcasses of vanity parading through cheap confetti
chained to open graves of corruption and pride
rotting corpses in that day’s foretold light.
Oh You who call me from realms free of time
where space recedes to glorious expanse of a new dawn
who cautions me in apostolic prophecy,
who stations in my heart the outpost of your dominion,
Oh, now greet me, now descend anew with thy holy kiss!
See my sisters’ blood and my brothers’
in my church in Egypt, in Sri Lanka, India,
and Pakistan, in South Sudan, in Nashville,
and Indonesia, China, Iraq and Louisiana,
Nigeria, North Korea, Iran, Syria
Somalia, Yemen, Eritrea.
Children dead for their faith
in One who died upon the cross
and rose on Easter morn.
The way I take You know, O Lord:
The stony path, the cheerless track —
No glory here, no crowds to say
How well you ran through pain, through tears.
But cheerless whispers resound at dusk
When silence falls and fears draw near
A crowd of strangers along the way
Their dirgeish voices battering faith.
The way I take You know, O Lord:
I cannot see around the bend —
When nights put flight diminishing days,
I reach for stars and gather dark;
I reach for You and though You’re there
My inward light burns low for sight.
Still I can hear Your Shepherd’s voice
The words You speak like strengthening rays
Of life, of health, of love, of grace.
The way I take You know, O Lord:
It leads me to my Father’s home —
Still while I’m here let this race be won
Not for my name but Yours alone!
My blessing in Your promise fulfilled,
Your Name borne high, Your word shown true;
I wait on You, Thy glory craving,
Your will to see, My will subdued,
Till that day You lift me up
And bear me high to shouts of joy
As in Your victory, mine abounds.
nota bene, 12/19/2018: A couple of weeks after writing this, I read these powerful lines from the pen of that master poet/hymn writer John Newton (Olney Hymns, 1779):
Though sometimes unperceived by sense,
Faith sees Him always near;
A Guide, a Glory, a Defence,
Then what have you to fear?
As surely as He overcame,
And triumphed once for you;
So surely you, that love His name,
Shall triumph in him too.
If you live in the world long enough, you will go through hard and painful times when, as the Psalmist writes, darkness seems your closest friend. The atheist and the Christian alike cry out, “Why?” Yet even when you know the answer is the fallen world in which we live, there is no satisfaction but what we most desire: help, release, escape from our anguish and circumstance, those things easily cried out for but often bitterly delayed.
As with Job, there seems no shortage of counsel to be got from trusted sources. “Offer your sufferings to God,” says one. But what does that mean? “Our hope lies in heaven, think on that,” says another. But does God then deny us help on this side of heaven? “The real miracle today is faith; the miracles of the New Testament have ceased and were for the early church.” But is that scriptural? Then the counsel most often given: “Pray and believe in the promises of the Bible.” But which ones, whose interpretation, and to what extent?
It’s the last piece of wisdom that troubles the most. If you are one of those least prone to truncate scriptural promises by rationalization, prepared to be as a child looking to the father, this one should give unmitigated hope:
The prayer of faith will save the sick person, and the Lord will raise him up; if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is very powerful in its effect. — James 5:15-16 (CSB)
But prayer, when uttered in the darkness, feels hopeless after many a cry and many a month or year has gone by:
I am like a man without strength,
abandoned among the dead.
I am like the slain lying in the grave,
whom you no longer remember,
and who are cut off from your care.
You have put me in the lowest part of the Pit,
in the darkest places, in the depths.
… But I call to you for help, Lord;
in the morning my prayer meets you.
Lord, why do you reject me?
Why do you hide your face from me?
— Psalms 88:4-6, 13-14 (CSB)
Faith, even as it’s being tested, seems too feeble to do the job. The very struggle seems designed to undermine what little there is so that, like the man who came to Jesus pleading for his son’s deliverance, we are even inclined to doubt out Lord’s willingness or even power. We judge His resources, His compassion, by ours which lag behind to an infinite degree.
But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.”
Jesus said to him, “ ‘If you can’? Everything is possible for the one who believes.”
Immediately the father of the boy cried out, “I do believe; help my unbelief! ”
— Mark 9:22-24 (CSB)
So where does that leave us? Not with the unwise words of comforters who say “yes & no” to the imperishable faith in God’s very present help. Not with words at all. After all, the last words of that most bleak psalm are, “Darkness is my only friend” (88:18). Yet the sense of hopelessness, even in the psalmist, is deceiving. There is hope. A glorious one.
The man who cried, “Help my unbelief!” was helped because he was looking straight into the face of Jesus. So too must we look not at ourselves or at the unwise words of our counselors who muddy up the waters of scripture according to their own doubts and fears, but to One who is the Light in our darkness.
As God is faithful, our message to you is not “Yes and no.” For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom we proclaimed among you … did not become “Yes and no.” On the contrary, in him it is always “Yes.” For every one of God’s promises is “Yes” in him. Therefore, through him we also say “Amen” to the glory of God.
— 2 Corinthians 1:18-20 (CSB)
Blessed is the one who endures trials, because when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him.
— James 1:12 (CSB)
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.
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.
This picture was taken behind our home. The colors all stream together into a red pool breeding a kind of wanderlust, an unhealthy variety where you feel like you’re fleeing from all the demons of hell but really just taking them all with you, pursued, driven and tormented. Into such a dark night of the soul, home is the only cure, a place where you are rescued and kept safe. I pray that all who read this will find that home in Christ Jesus, who in His faithful love I have found to be the only sure refuge from such a rabid wanderlust of the mind and spirit.
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.
Before You I fall, the blood of the slain Lamb
Like rubies lit across the spilt years,
Dispersing hungry darkness, preying fears
Dismayed faith, that my prayers in ceaseless
Torrent may wash through unbelief and doubt
And the inane repetitions of old words
Earth-bound and worn, ill-used in faith, weary
But that fright has flung them on my tongue
Again to plead mercied miracle for a friend.
If an author needs a reader
To see with different eyes
The words that she has written
Which once were on her heart,
The reader needs the author
To show her other worlds
That only words can offer
As a bridge to different hearts.
Still better is the Author
Who became the Word in flesh
And walked among the suffering,
Our griefs upon His heart,
Who with divine compassion
Bore our sins upon His cross
Then wrote in broken hearts
His unending song of Love.
Matthew 16:26/Mark 8:36/Luke 9:25 For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?
Of C. S. Lewis’s The Space Trilogy, my favorite for mostly personal reasons is Perelandra. The plot unfolds around a newly formed planet, loosely modeled after Venus, undergoing an Edenic beginning with a man and a woman and a multitude of new creations. Into this is sent Elwin Ransom, the protagonist from earth, charged by God (Maledil) with the mission of thwarting the attempts of Satan (Black Archon) to tempt the newly created Queen to rebel against Maledil and bring about a Fall, the agent of which is another man from earth, the staunch materialist Professor Weston who becomes a demoniac.
Once when he was very young, I remember my son looking at me through the very real pain of getting a shot at the doctor’s and saying in surprise and accusation, “It hurts!” I was his mother. I wasn’t supposed to allow such pain, much less engineer it. In his dependance on me, it must have seemed like a betrayal. “It hurts me more than it hurts you,” I’d have liked to have said, but I don’t think he would have believed me, that I would have spared him if not for the ultimate good the injections promised.
Just as I have never seen a dry leaf
turn supple green under the spring rain,
I have never seen a corpse’s bones
reborn as from the womb like a baby.
This defies mother nature’s course,
she who’s answerable to her Maker,
unless the Maker Himself the rain becomes
and the womb that gives birth
to His lovers.
One wintry Thursday morning, under a queer blurry sky, an old woman trekked down a bustling city street with an unsightly burlap bag hanging from her shoulder. The people that passed her noted her appearance which seemed awfully ordinary except for the bag, of course, which couldn’t possibly be a handbag.
Every once in a while she would stop and ask a passerby something, then shake her head and keep walking. This happened from early morning to evening so that the people who passed her while on their way to the office or store would pass her again on their way back. The ones she had already stopped and spoken with would give her a wide berth more often than not. She really did seem strange, but in a familiar sort of way.
LORD, you want me to live upside down defying gravity
I can’t unless you hold me to the ceiling and that’s insanity
I want to keep lurching back to my feet or I’ll be dead
Floating on air with you and most of the time my head
Keeps exploding because everything is turned around
But You tell me I’m right side up and not to frown
When I can walk on water like You.
You’ve rearranged my living not to put myself first,
To love my enemy and do good to all who thirst
To turn the other cheek and walk the extra mile
To let go of the bling the world prizes with a smile
And enjoy the freedom of a brand new life in You
To let my self die so You can live and I in You
Because when I lose my life I gain it for free
In your kingdom eternally though I can’t see
But by faith which is fantasy to most people minus one
Who look out for sensible ways to get the job done
While living in the world like me.
But I trust You, Lord, and what you say is right
The Way to live my life is by faith and not by sight
I’ll walk in the Spirit and obey and not retreat
And forget the world says that it seems to spell defeat
To see the first is the last and the last is the first
When the devil fights like there’s no end to the curse
Though we’re in the last days, You still haven’t come back
And not to criticize but that seems out of whack
But it’s true because You said it so I’ll live upside down
And with You holding me I believe I’ll get my crown
And I can walk on water like You.
(Based on Matt. 5, 1 John 2: 15-16, John 16:33, & 1 John 5: 4-15)
Rap poetry is an energetic, raw, and unpretentious genre which is not always put to its best use as an instrument for good. But sometimes it is. If you’re not familiar with its use in the church, popular Christian rapper Shai Linne’s “Justified” is a great example of lyrical theology at its finest in contemporary culture and I encourage you to read it here.
Come to the house of mourning
You will see me there
In the darkening shadows
Of the sighing halls and stairs.
Candles brighten doorways
But they never flicker strong
Though many people enter
And some may call it home.