Abide, Abide, Abide

The news is so discouraging and disheartening these days. So much suffering and anguish all around. I can only attend to little snippets of the noise at a time because national news stories provide so little hope, and no clear paths forward on solving any of the myriad problems we face in our American culture.

Add to this the negative bias that is so obvious in much reporting, and most of it is not worthy of our trust.  Sometimes it feels impossible that we will see better days ahead.

Indeed, the Bible states plainly that “evil men and impostors will grow worse and worse, deceiving and being deceived” (2 Tim 3:13, NKJV). We are warned by the Apostle Paul so that we will walk and listen very carefully in perilous times.

When the tragedies pile up and I am tempted to dwell on the darkness, I recognize that I need a dose of the gospel, taken like good medicine, or like a burst of sunlight through the clouds.

When I go to that source, I remember, again and again, that this world is passing away, but the truth of Jesus, and our destiny in him, is absolutely true and guaranteed to come to pass. This is the key to keeping our courage and hope.

The fact that I don’t like the direction humanity is heading, AND my desire to keep my faith in Christ strong and vibrant elicits some questions. I’m navigating this month through the gospel of John, so the words of Jesus are my primary guide as I seek the answers.

How do we as believers dwell in this world and not become like the world? How do we fully engage in the lives we have been given without falling in love with our lives? How do we fully surrender ourselves to Jesus and his kingdom while still obligated to participate in this worldly kingdom?

Jesus makes very clear in John’s gospel that his followers are in the world, but not truly a part of the world once we become born again children of God. We are in the world, but according to Jesus, the world is no longer in us. We are citizens of heaven (Phil. 3:20).

John writes that there is someone greater in us than “he who is in the world” (1 John 4:4, KJV). This is the Holy Spirit. There are practical, behavioral aspects to the ways we differ from those who are still “of the world,” but there are other aspects that are altogether spiritual and mystical, directed by the wise Counselor Jesus sends to those who believe.

We find guidance on these questions in John 15, where Jesus teaches his disciples about abiding, or remaining in him. He likens his people to branches connected to a vine, which is himself. As long as we are in the world, and even after we leave this world, we are connected to him, remain in him, are united with him, dwelling in him (some of the various other translations for the concept of “abide), as part of the same organism.  He uses these terms multiple times throughout the passage.

There is nothing that can separate us from him unless we cease our abiding in him. It must be possible to disconnect ourselves from the vine somehow. Otherwise, why would Jesus command us to stay close?

Lord, never let us detach from you and go our own way. Without you, we can do nothing truly worthwhile!

We have to stay close to Jesus Christ or life stops making any sense, and we fall into despair. This is what I’ve observed in myself over my years of relationship with him, and I’ve also observed it in so many others.

When our attachment to him strengthens, we find that our attachment to the world and its attractions is weakened. We may enjoy relationships, work, play, and other experiences without NEEDING them in the same way. They are “extras” that we can utilize and enjoy.

When our lives are “hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3) all of our experiences can be directed toward communicating the love of Christ to others. This is our primary purpose for being here while the Father is preparing the wedding feast for his Son—inviting others to join us through our attractive and convicting influence.

As Bob Goff has so winsomely demonstrated and taught, Love Does, and love needs to be extended to Everybody Always. (These are the titles of two of his books, which I heartily recommend.) This kind of life is not complicated, but that doesn’t mean it is easy. It usually is not easy. It often makes us quite uncomfortable to dedicate our lives to a reality that is outside the visible realm. The standards for love in the kingdom of heaven are so high above the standards down here.

That’s why it’s so essential to abide. Only Jesus can represent himself through us, and he can only do this if we maintain our conscious contact with him as our primary source and our ultimate destiny.

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Sitting in the Ashes

(I wrote this essay in 2018. It came to mind this week as I, with the rest of my state and nation, have had many troubled thoughts and feelings about the horrific evil perpetrated in Uvalde, Texas. We’ve observed people with strong opinions very quickly jump in and insist on sharing their anger, blame, or political slant in the public arena. This hurts my heart for the people most directly impacted. Can we give the traumatized a minute to simply grieve and get past their shock before getting political or blaming others? If we have a possible solution to propose, wonderful. But even then, we have to wait for the right moment. In Job’s case, as you’ll see, his friends did many things well to support Job in his deep grief. Then they started talking….)

Most people, even those who know little of the Bible, have heard of Job, and connect his name to great loss and suffering. He’s the poster child for the apologetic question of why God allows bad things to happen to good people. But that is not my focus here.

My focus is how Job’s three friends attended to him when they heard of his overwhelming losses.  Job’s friends are famous in the story for being “miserable comforters” (16:2), but they didn’t start out that way. These friends are given a bad rap. I want to give them credit for what they did well and encourage us to follow that example. Then of course, there needs to be a word of caution about how and when they stopped being helpful.

Job lost everything but his wife and his life. He suddenly lost all ten of his children, all of his servants, all of his livestock, all of his assets, and finally, his health. He began to curse the day he was born.

Job’s three friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, heard of the calamity that had befallen him. These men “made an appointment together to come to show him sympathy and comfort him” (2:11).  This is the first thing they did right. They came. They traveled some distance, leaving their own families and businesses to bring love and comfort to their friend. It appears their intentions were right and good.

When they saw him from far off, they didn’t even recognize him. That’s how devastated he was, sitting in the ashes and scraping with a shard of pottery the “loathsome sores” (2:7) covering his entire body. Their response was the second right thing they did: “They raised their voices and wept, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads toward heaven” (2:12).  Job’s friends didn’t stand at a distance feeling sorry for him. They joined him in his grief. They took it upon themselves. They interceded in prayer.

The third thing they did is the most beautiful and praiseworthy, in my opinion. “And they sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great” (2:13).

They sat in the ashes with him. How many of us have done that? I’ve never put all else aside, forsaking all other concerns, keeping silent for an entire week to be fully present with a grieving friend. Have you?

adult alone autumn brick

Contrast that with Job’s wife. Her counsel to her husband was to let go of his faith and his integrity, and to “curse God and die” (2:9). We must excuse her, because she had lost everything too. She clearly was incapable of bringing any comfort. The text doesn’t say, but I hope some friends showed up for her as well.

As for Job, his friends stepped in, and with their silent presence, they waited and grieved together.

When did these friends start to go wrong? As soon as they started talking. They started explaining things. They lectured Job in theology. They impugned Job’s integrity. They condescended in self-righteous indignation. They rebuked him as he cried out to God, desperately trying make sense of things for himself.

Job’s friends accused him of presumption and arrogance. Worst of all, they made him feel alone and forsaken. These friends, with their many words, undid the beautiful ministry they had practiced sacrificially for those seven days and nights.

The lesson is clear. When we have friends who are experiencing great grief and loss, we are to go to them, to suffer with them, to uphold them and help them carry their heavy burdens (Gal 6:2; Rom 12:15).  We quietly pray and cry out to God with them.  We simply stay present and protect the space while they grieve.

We wait to speak until we know we have a word from God that will speak truth in the right way and at the right time. We are exceedingly gentle and patient. We put their needs ahead of our own.

This may mean that we keep our mouths shut and our opinions to ourselves for a very long time. There is a time for theological arguments, but this is not it.

Grieving friends need our loving presence.  They need for us to be willing to sit in the ashes with them, so they know they are not alone.   

Saved for a Purpose

Often I’ve heard those who’ve had a close encounter with death speak reflectively about what they have learned from the experience. They may have heard a very frightening prognosis for a medical condition and then recovered against the odds. Or they had a near-fatal car accident, or almost drowned, or were gravely injured in war, or survived a lethal assault.

There are a few very common, almost universal realizations for humans in this circumstance. I’ve heard them repeatedly in counseling sessions, ministry situations, support groups, and more personal communications.

People will often say that they have a new appreciation for the value of life once they’ve experienced the imminent threat of death. They are more grateful for the life and opportunities they possess and don’t want to take anything or anyone for granted. They encourage others to tell the people they love how they feel while they have the opportunity. These people who have come back from the brink of death remind us that we could lose those we love without warning, or they might lose us.

Another comment that I frequently hear is that their lives were spared—they were saved, in other words, for a reason. They may or may not have a full understanding of what that reason is, and for what purpose they were given another chance at life. But they take it on faith that God has a reason.

This is where Scripture came to life for me while reading the opening chapter to the letter of Paul to the Galatians. As we learn in this letter, in other letters, and in the book of Acts, Paul was saved from death in a few ways. Spiritually, he was saved by faith and welcomed into the eternal kingdom of God; mentally, he was saved from his own distorted version of God’s demands upon him that were leading him to peril, and physically, he was saved from physical death many times once he switched teams and started preaching Jesus.

Speaking in part about these transformational experiences, Paul writes,

I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers. But when God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, my immediate response was not to consult any human being… (Gal. 1:14-16)

The book of Acts records the metamorphosis that occurred in this man following the day he met the Lord on his ill-fated trip to Damascus. He went from being a religious zealot, a rising star in the Orthodox rabbinical community, to a humble, persecuted, extremely dedicated servant of Jesus, whom he had declared his Lord and Master.

In this letter to the believers in Galatia some years later, he recaps the highlights of this transformation process. He had had enough time to reach the understanding that God had a very specific reason for saving him, and it went far beyond just the assurance of eternal life for himself.

Paul acknowledges that he was saved through the sovereignty of God, who called and set him apart even before he was born. But then he adds the declaration that God chose to “reveal his Son in me” so that “I might preach him among the Gentiles.” He was saved and called and sent out for a reason—to bring truth and life to Gentiles who had been living in darkness, shut out from the promises of God to people everywhere, whether Jew or Gentile.

This overarching purpose must have brought great confidence and comfort to Paul. He understood that whatever he might experience, the Lord Jesus was directing him, and would not let him die until God’s purposes in him were fulfilled.

Paul’s testimony can also be applied to us, and can also bring us confidence and comfort.

Salvation through our relationship with Jesus Christ is the best gift that could ever be given to anyone. That is the greatest prize, in itself. We didn’t deserve it, didn’t earn it, and didn’t pay for it. God owes us absolutely nothing, and yet he purposed long before we were born that we would be redeemed through our mediator, Jesus Christ the Righteous One. What more could we need or ask for?

Yet, we come to understand that when we occupy our new position as children of the kingdom of God, we are given both an assignment to fill, and a generous benefit package.  The benefits include Holy Spirit empowerment, Scriptural wisdom and instruction, assistance from angels, and ongoing advocacy and intercession from God’s throne room.

As for the assignment, that varies from person to person, and sometimes from season to season. For some of us, it may take many years to get full revelation of our purpose in God, but be assured, there is one for each of us.

Paul waited 17 years before he was commissioned and blessed by the other Apostles to bring the gospel to the Gentiles. In the meantime, God was teaching him who he was designed to be in Christ, and what he was saved to accomplish.

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We all have different audiences and different spheres of influence, and that is why he calls us to different ways of participating in his work in this world. He wants us to say yes to our unique assignments, whatever and wherever they may be. When we do, we experience fruitfulness and great reward. He will keep us moving forward until he decides we are finished.

He saves us because he loves us, and this is his good will toward us. He wants us to be secure as his children, now and forever. And, I believe that he saves us with a call to serve him, to speak well and often of him, to reveal him to others, and to live in his light so that others can also find their way to him.

Suicide: What Scripture Says and Does Not Say

In thirty years of counseling in various places and contexts, I never personally experienced the suicide of a client. Until now. Strange that two weeks after seeing my last client and stepping into the new flow of retirement, I learned of the suicide of a client I had been seeing right up to the time of my departure.

As is natural when hearing such tragic news about someone we sincerely care for, I ran through the gamut of questions. Did I do all I could to make sure he would stay connected to his support system when I left? Did I assess him closely enough for suicidal thoughts or plans? Was there anything I could have done differently that may have prevented this terrible loss of hope and will to live?

My lovely former supervisor, who phoned me to break the news, graciously allowed me to process these questions with her. She had looked through every record concerning this client and found not a trace of concern about suicidal intentions from any of his providers. She assured me that I had given him excellent care, that I had facilitated a very warm transfer to a new provider, and that I had done nothing wrong.

This is reassuring but doesn’t take away the grief and sadness. It is heartbreaking to have lost this very good-hearted individual. He had been working diligently on his recovery from alcoholism and its serious legal and financial consequences in his life. I ache for his family. I don’t know any details, but it appears that it all just became too much for him, and he gave up.

Since last week when I heard this news, I have been reflecting on suicide, and it occurred to me that I’ve never written about it. So here I am, seeing how Scripture comes to life on this topic of individuals who deliberately end their lives.

First, I want to look at a few cases of suicide in the Bible. Then we’ll look at some examples of souls who chose to continue living, even when pressed to the very limits of their endurance. Then, I want to share some thoughts on what the Bible implies about suicide, and share thoughts about what it does not say about it. That might be even more revealing than the few things it does say.

There are few suicides mentioned in the Bible. King Saul, already grievously wounded in battle by the Philistines, fell on his own sword so the enemy couldn’t come and finish the job (1 Sam. 31:4). When his armor-bearer saw what Saul had done, he also fell on his sword, and they died together on the battlefield.

Another is Ahithophel, a trusted advisor of King David until he aligned himself with David’s son Absalom. He advised Absalom to sleep with David’s concubines and then to kill David. David was notified of the threat, and the plot was thwarted. Knowing that he was as good as dead, Ahithophel “put his house in order and then hanged himself” (2 Sam. 23).

And then we are familiar with Judas, the betrayer of Jesus. When he came to his senses and understood the enormity of what he had done, betraying the “innocent blood” (Mt. 27:4) of his Savior and friend, he promptly hanged himself.

In none of these biblical accounts does the Holy Spirit-led author offer an opinion or value judgment about the suicides themselves. About the events leading to them, yes. But God’s word is silent about their choice to end their lives. It is simply reported as a fact.

Though these suicide stories are included in the biblical narratives, there are many more stories in the Bible about individuals who encountered incredibly painful trials and suffering but did not end their lives.

What of Job, or David, who wrote by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, about their longing for the relief that death might bring?

After 7 days of overwhelming, silent grief over the loss of everything that mattered to him, Job began to speak, and the first thing he spoke was a curse against the day of his birth. He cried out,

“Why did I not perish at birth, and die as I came from the womb?…For now I would be lying down in peace; I would be asleep and at rest” (Job 3:11, 13).

Job’s wife challenged him, “Are you still holding onto your integrity? Curse God and die!” (2:9). But Job did not curse God and die. He challenged her back, “Shall we accept good from God and not trouble?” (2:10).

No, Job did not kill himself or “sin in what he said” (2:10). He wrestled with his pain. He listened to the arrogant, misguided theological arguments of his friends about the calamities that had befallen him. He waited. He brought his case directly to the Lord, and the Lord responded to him. As the story plays out, we see that Job was restored; he re-engaged with life, had more children, and received God’s blessing.

King David, if he were alive now in our psychologized secular environment, would probably be diagnosed with bipolar disorder and put on medications. I base this on some of his writings, especially in the Psalms, when he felt threatened, lonely, and misunderstood, and seems suicidally depressed. But then, after describing how close he came to giving up on living, David proclaims, “I will not die but live, and will proclaim what the Lord has done” (Ps. 118:17). He understood that his life, whatever he might suffer, was designed to bring glory to God.

When I assess new clients at the beginning of the therapy relationship, we always have a conversation about any current or past thoughts of wanting to die or do harm to themselves or others. This is a duty of every responsible clinician, especially during a time when suicides (and homicides in some places) have become epidemic. Part of the conversation is about what we call “protective factors.”

I validate the reality that most people, even children, think at some point that it would be much easier to check out rather than continue to suffer. Life feels so difficult sometimes, and we can feel we are trapped in circumstances with no apparent hope of relief or rescue.

Most people deny any current impulses to harm themselves, though it’s hard to tell sometimes if they are being honest about it. As I continue to engage, I push a little bit: in light of that very normal, human feeling of wanting to be gone, what is it that keeps them going? What protects them from acting on that impulse, whether it is just fleeting or a more serious and chronic urge to die?

People often cite their children and other loved ones, recognizing the pain their suicide would inflict upon them. Maybe they’ve witnessed the suicide of a friend or family member, so they’ve experienced the devastation it creates. I am quick to agree that the agony of losing someone to suicide is different from ordinary grief and is something their loved ones would never be able to “get over.” Especially if a parent leaves his or her children behind.

Others, like King David, say that in spite of a depression that daily brings excruciating pain, they still have hope. They are curious about how their story will turn out. They want to see what life feels like on the other side of the pain and despair. They believe rescue is still possible. They have a dim but still present belief that things will eventually get better, and they are coming to me for help because of that belief.

It is a great honor to walk with someone in these moments, and to let them borrow some of my hope when they need it.

Others give a religious argument. They were taught that suicide is an unforgiveable sin, one that condemns a person to hell, and this is why they have never acted on their suicidal impulses.

Though I don’t believe this even a little bit, I don’t argue with people about it at this point, because at the initial stage of our relationship, my main concern is that they stay alive long enough to get better. At the risk of sounding flippant, if they stay alive because they love vanilla ice cream and if dead, would never be able to taste it again, I’d take even that as a good enough reason in the moment.

But this notion that suicide sends believers to hell is a fallacy of medieval religious doctrine for which I have never found a shred of evidence in the Bible. It is neither stated nor implied. Not in the Law, or the Prophets, or the Wisdom books, or the gospels, or the apostolic writings of the New Testament. I’ve spent a lot of years in the book, and I can say with some confidence this doctrine is not there.

The Bible is God’s story, and he is a God of mercy and compassion, from beginning to end. This God, our Father, knows what we suffer. He knows we are fragile, that we are dust, grass or flowers that quickly perish or fade away, and our time on the earth is brief even in the best of cases.

This God also knows that the enemy has imprisoned some of us in chains of mental illness, addiction, and suicidal depression, and some may not recover. This has gotten baked into the human condition over many generations of satan’s work. Suicide occurs in a moment of lost hope because of the enemy, and not because the person is evil or unworthy in some way.

This is not to say that suicide is not a terrible sin. It is–one of the worst. It is equivalent to murder because it is self-murder. Murdering a human being should bring consequences, and it does, whether it is murder of self or another. It causes great harm, and not just to the person who is dead.

But there are many sins committed by human beings that bring harm and terrible consequences. This is why we all need a Savior! We all need our great High Priest to mediate and intercede for us.

Suicide isn’t in a special category outside of the sin that was covered at the cross with the shed blood of Jesus Christ. If a person has been born again and come into God’s kingdom and care, taking his own life does not remove his identity as a child of God any more than a child who commits suicide becomes less of a son to his grieving parents.

Paul clearly states that there is NOTHING that destroys God’s love for us in Christ.

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:38-39).

Do we believe this?

Jesus Christ, who lived among finite humans like us, understands that some of his children suffer from mental illnesses or prolonged periods of despair and hardship, and they might succumb to the temptation to end their pain by suicide.

He knew each of us would give our lives to him before we did, and he knows that some of us unfortunately will get inexorably trapped in the snare of the devil and will end our lives without his permission. He loves and forgives us through and through no matter how long we live, or how we die. This is what I will believe until my own dying breath.

But here’s another thing I share with Christian clients a bit later in the conversation. If we are saved by grace, it means that we have come to call Jesus Lord, and that we came believe that he was raised from the dead. These are the stated conditions for salvation in Romans 10:9-10. He died in our place, and was resurrected as the victor over sin and death. This makes him worthy to be called Lord. He becomes our forerunner and our source of hope.

If Jesus is not only Savior, but Lord, that means that we no longer have lordship over our own bodies and souls, but that we belong to him. We may feel that we are in the director seat, but ultimately, the Lord is the only one with the right to determine the beginning, the end, and everything in the middle. Paul says it like this,

For none of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone. If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living” (Rom. 14:7-9).

Suicide does not condemn a person to hell if they are already saved. Suicide is, however, a horrible sin against the Lordship of Christ in your life. It is an act of disobedience that has many tragic consequences, especially for those who love the person committing the act. But that doesn’t make it unforgiveable. God’s mercy triumphs over his judgment through the blood of Christ. The Lamb of God takes away the sins of the world.

The Father grieves, Jesus weeps, and the Spirit groans over the enemy’s work that causes his people to lose all hope. And when they cross over into the realm where they are in his eternal presence, I believe that he receives and embraces them just as he receives all those who come home to him.

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Accidental Rest

Recently a friend stayed with me while in town for a job interview. On her way back from the interview, her car broke down and she had it towed to a garage. We didn’t know that day that she would wind up stranded and staying as our house guest for an entire week. That’s how long it would take the garage to get the necessary parts and complete the repairs.

As she and I talked about this unexpected change and delay, which we both could have found highly frustrating, we stumbled upon the phrase, “accidental rest.” My friend hadn’t intended to set aside her normal activities and commitments at home, but her car troubles necessitated her making use of the week for something different–namely, rest.

This meant I had the choice to fight against or to simply accept her reframing of the circumstances and adjust to having her company all week. Maybe I could consider joining in her in this accidental rest. I chose the latter, and for the most part, had a fun and relaxing week, putting aside items on my to-do list that weren’t urgent.

The idea of rest is especially relevant for me at this moment of my journey. I am in my first full week of retirement after 30 years as a professional counselor. I didn’t expect to retire this year, but as I kept at my counseling and recovery work (which I was enjoying and doing well), the thought became daily and persistent: “It’s time.” There wasn’t any event or experience that solidified the decision, just an inner knowing.

I don’t believe in retirement, really, because I will always need to be working at something. In fact, I’m excited about working on quite an array of things, mostly creative. Writing, music, worship, Bible teaching, photography, landscaping, decorating, and of course, walking much in pretty places. My inspiration and ideas are running rampant and free. But the difference is that I get to choose when to work, create, or rest, when to play and when to sleep.

Last week I was reading in Romans 7 and saw through a new lens Paul’s description of the universal struggle of the disciple between the flesh and the Spirit. He describes a warring between what is deep within—the Spirit of life—and the external parts of our bodies and lives.

Often, we are led by the external things, because the practicalities of life require it. But sometimes we have a moment, which might feel like an “accidental rest,” when we can truly attend to the Spirit that lives within. I know that my decision on the timing of my retirement came from that inner place.

This has been confirmed in a few ways. For one, I have had complete peace about it, and not a moment of doubt. Second, everyone I’ve told who knows me even a little bit has been overwhelmingly supportive. So many have responded with something like, “Wow, I’m so happy for you, and so proud of you for going after what you want in this next season of life.” In other words, for me and for those who care about me, it just makes sense. And thirdly, it seems as though the Spirit is nodding with a big grin on his face, like he’s happy too that I listened to the better voice within. He’s adding supernatural joy to the mix.

Now, the question is how to think about and safeguard the rest that has has become available in a new way. I know that God is greatly in favor of rest because he rested himself after a six-day splurge of creativity. He instituted it as a commandment to his human creatures because he knows we need it. Rest is not accidental in God’s plan; it’s strategic, essential, and intentional.

So I embrace the intentional kind of rest and encourage you, dear reader to embrace it also. If we do this consistently, we can keep our hearts healthy, open, flexible, ready for the surprises that come as we deal with the issues of life.

You may not be at the point of retirement from a long career as I am at this moment, but I believe the principle still applies. Day after day, we can attend to the inner voice of the Spirit and create moments of rest that nourish us. And when unexpected things pop up, maybe we take some accidental rests too.

The sky won’t fall. The planets won’t collide. Maybe, just maybe, life will be better, more orderly, more peaceful, more sane, more attuned to the deep, satisfying love of God.  

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Seeing the Invisible

The title for this blog is an oxymoron, a contradiction within itself. It’s a riddle to be solved. This is not my own creation but is a figure of speech lifted directly from the Scriptures. When I ran across it in my reading, I wondered if Scripture itself could help me make sense of seeing something that is unseeable.

I want to see the invisible. Why? Because Paul tells us that, strange as it seems, the things we can now see are temporary and will eventually disappear, while the unseen things of God are eternal. Only the things that are now invisible to us will last forever (2 Cor. 4:18). He instructs us to look at these things that are unseeable!  

I found three passages of Scripture that might be helpful (but not completely, because I think this is among those biblical concepts that will remain in part mysterious). First, this from the first chapter of the book of Romans:

“For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse” (Rom. 1:20).

This passage, I learned in my seminary training, refers to “general revelation.” Both before and after the incarnation of Christ, the existence of God was and is discernable by observing natural phenomena. The intricacy and complexity and very creativity found on earth and in the heavens necessitate belief in a Creator God. Therefore, Paul concludes, even those who haven’t heard the gospel of Jesus Christ have no excuse for rejecting the invisible God, because he can be seen in what He has created.  

As I write this, I am sitting on my patio outside, watching hummingbirds flutter around, feeling the wind on my skin, noticing the leaves and buds unfolding on the trees in perfect timing on this perfect spring day.

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While I was taught to believe that these are naturalistic phenomena explainable by millions of years of evolution, I simply cannot accept that argument. I say “Amen” to Frank Turek’s pithy apologetics book title, “I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist.”

 Explaining how hummingbirds—or bumblebees, or elephants, or a thousand other extraordinary creatures–came to be according to evolutionary theory will never pass muster or make sense to me. They are simply too wonderful, and the spirit within me insists that they were created by a divine person with a most fantastical imagination.

This beautiful scene before my eyes is one of many visible fingerprints from the hand of the invisible God.

The next aspect of seeing the unseeable is expressed in Colossians 1:15-16:

“The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him.”

When the “Word became flesh” (John 1:14), we received another revelation of the Creator God. Not general revelation, but very specific revelation.

As a man, Jesus was seeable, touchable, hearable, knowable. He was part of God’s natural world for a short time, but a part of the eternal realm also. While on earth he perfectly reflected and made visible the love, wisdom, holiness, grace, truth, and life that exists eternally in God the Father and the Holy Spirit. He was a tangible representation of the intangible.

On the cross we have a vivid portrayal of the love of God poured out. The ultimate passion play. Love made visible.

A third usage of this figure occurs in reference to the faith of our ancestors, the “cloud of witnesses” (Heb. 11:1) who believed God when they couldn’t see him. Speaking of Moses, the author of Hebrews declares,

He regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt because he was looking ahead to his reward. By faith he left Egypt, not fearing the king’s anger; he persevered because he saw him who is invisible (Heb. 11:26-27).

The saints of old did not have the advantage of reading about Jesus, and learning how and when the Messiah burst into the human story. They couldn’t get the visual (with some exceptions in the books of prophecy) of this man of sorrows, this one who washed feet and opened blind eyes and hung bleeding on a cruel tree.

These images were invisible to them because they hadn’t happened yet. And these dear longsuffering believers are honored for persevering in their faith without seeing its outcome. Like Moses cited here, they did see something inside of their own hearts of the Invisible One, and that was enough.

Jesus confirms to the apostle Thomas the blessing of this kind of trusting before we can see, (which is an pretty good, simple definition of faith).

Thomas had been missing when Jesus first appeared to his disciples after his resurrection. When told about Jesus’s appearance, Thomas said, “I won’t believe it unless I see the nail wounds in his hands, put my fingers into them, and place my hand into the wound in his side”(John 20:25).

But eight days later, he gets his moment to see Jesus in his resurrected body and falls down in awe and worship. Jesus says to Thomas, “You believe because you have seen me. Blessed are those who believe without seeing me” (v. 29).

Jesus declared blessed those who see enough of the unseeable things of God that they can trust, and obey, and worship, without seeing with their physical eyes.

As we approach this Easter weekend, let us celebrate what we have seen and know about our Risen Savior. And let us ask Holy Spirit to give us the ability to see beyond, into the glory realm, where God’s invisibility becomes as real as what we can see with our eyes.

Let the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the “firstborn among many” (Rom. 8:29) fill us with faith and hope as we await our own resurrection and union with him.

Duty to Joy

As I was doing my devotional reading in 2 Corinthians and asking for new light this week, the thought that emerged was that as believers we have a duty to joy. We are to bring joyful praises to God. We are to experience joy that strengthens us in our walk with him. And we are to practice our faith in a way that brings joy to each other and to our spiritual leaders.

The Apostle Paul had founded and then pastored the church at Corinth through his direct presence and through written correspondence. Two of his letters to them became part of the biblical canon. We know that there were more letters, but these are the two Holy Spirit ordained to become part of his Book.

I’ve always considered 1 Corinthians (along with the book of Acts) as the essential manual for establishing a healthy, caring Christian community. It is instructional, encouraging, challenging, and corrective of many mostly practical errors that commonly occur in community life and worship.

Second Corinthians has a very different flavor and tone. It is apparent that there had been conflict between Paul and this church he dearly loved. Having planted the church, Paul felt a sense of ownership, and expected that his apostolic leadership would be respected. It’s clear that he also wanted them to love him. His feelings were hurt. Where he once had shared joyful fellowship with them, they had come to a point where they were causing each other pain.

This comes through clearly in this passage:

So I decided that I would not bring you grief with another painful visit. For if I cause you grief, who will make me glad? Certainly not someone I have grieved. That is why I wrote to you as I did, so that when I do come, I won’t be grieved by the very ones who ought to give me the greatest joy. Surely you all know that my joy comes from your being joyful. (2 Cor. 2:1-3, NLT).

My pain brings you pain. Your joy brings me joy. Paul’s steady reiteration of this dichotomy of pain and joy really caught my attention. He seems to place great importance on bringing joy to our brothers and sisters, and our leaders, and avoiding words and behaviors that will bring pain.

Sometimes hard words need to be said when there’s a conflict, and it doesn’t feel good to be on the receiving end (or, quite often, the sending end either). Conflict is difficult for most of us. If we grew up in a family or environment in which conflict escalated to violence or cut us off from love and belonging, we naturally associate conflict with pain and rejection.

But it doesn’t have to be this way, especially in a community of Jesus-followers. Our fellowship together around the truth of the gospel and our common love for the Lord is to be characterized by love and joy, whether we are dealing with conflict or not.

Jesus was realistic about human relationships and gave lengthy instruction on how we can walk through conflict without destroying the love and joy.

He preached,

“If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you” (John 15:10-12).

Jesus wanted us not only to love one another, but to find great joy in loving one another. Our fellowship is purposed on bringing Jesus and our spiritual family “complete” joy. Whole, wholehearted joy.

In Jesus’s deep prayer to the Father shortly before he departed the earth, Jesus cried out,

“I am coming to you now, but I say these things while I am still in the world, so that they may have the full measure of my joy within them…” (John 17:13).

He wanted us to be obedient, respectful, honorable children. But his underlying purpose in wanting this for us is that we would experience the deepest and best type of joy available to human beings this side of heaven.

Going back to Paul, we find further reinforcement regarding this concept of complete joy. Philippians 2:2 is a beautiful example:

“…then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind.”

Leaders who have the hearts of servants and shepherds are pained when the sheep don’t live in like-mindedness, mutual caring, and unity. But when we walk in the steps of Jesus, at one with him and one another, our leaders experience an overwhelming joy. It’s like the joy we feel when our own children play well together and show lovingkindness toward each other. There are few things that are more fulfilling to witness in this life.

In the letter to the Hebrews, the author emphasizes this point:

“Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you “(Heb. 13:17).

In order to not leave out another very important Apostle, I’ll end with Peter’s statement that sums up well the fruit of our faith,

“Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy (1 Pet. 1:8).

I want to be the kind of disciple who brings joy to my savior, who spreads joy amongst my friends and neighbors, and to the shepherds who watch over my soul. Will you join me in this duty to pursue joy?

Holding on and Letting Go

(I’m sharing this from a post from way back in 2018, and it came to mind as I still experience this today–God’s tender love and patience with me as I’m still holding on to the things he wants me to eventually surrender…)

Last week was trying for me, at work and at home. Nothing life-threatening or overwhelming, but more impacting and challenging than usual. And I observed some things about myself and how God deals with me at times like this.

Acquaintances might say that I am a rather calm and studious individual. But those who know me better know that I have a very passionate, determined aspect to my personality. I have a fire within me. But I don’t typically react to things with emotions at first. I am a thinker.

When things come at me fast and furiously, my instinct is to retreat and process. Like a dog with a bone, I have to chew on things for a while before I even understand how I feel, or what actions I am to take in response. You might say I have to brood and wait and feel the ache. I feel so very human and vulnerable at these times.

What I’ve noticed is that God is gracious toward me and allows me to hold on to my troubles for a bit. He allows me to be angry, frustrated, disappointed, hurt, or anxious. He never forces me to let go before I am ready.

God gave us our minds and our emotions. Each of us has a unique blend of emotional responsiveness and intellectual reasoning. We need both. Sometimes we need to take time to get them to match up and lead us to a good decision about what to do next. We must respond with both what feels right and what is right.

I’m reminded of the story of Jacob wrestling with God all night. At daybreak, he tells God’s angel, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” Jacob receives his blessing, and a change of his name from Jacob to Israel, signifying, “You have struggled with God and with men and have overcome” (Gen 32:26-28).

Like Jacob, if I wrestle with God and man from a rebellious spirit and with an ungodly motive, I will lose in the end. But if I wrestle to gain God’s blessing and his wisdom, there is fruit to be gained. The fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Gal. 5:22-23). When the fruit comes, I realize that I am so much better off than I would be if the struggle had never come. I am stronger, freer, and more at peace.

Another biblical allusion is Jesus contending with Satan in the wilderness.  Jesus won, the devil departed, and “angels came and attended him” (Matt. 4:11). Isn’t that a beautiful picture? Staying in the fight until it is time to let go and then letting God move in to bless and heal us.

The moment of letting go can be so lovely. A few days ago, while I was out walking my little dogs and listening to beautiful worship music, I felt that moment come. I was flooded with gratitude for God’s fatherly kindness. He didn’t yank the bone out of my mouth but let me hold it as long as I needed to. I felt as though he trusted me—that I would let go when the time was right, and that I would respond rightly to his guidance. This greatly enriched my communion with him.

I’ve written this in the first person, but I’m sure some of you who read this can relate, and I hope it helps. Our loving Father knows us so well and deals with us so personally to reveal his good thoughts and plans, when we are ready. Because he is always holding on to us, we can be secure in the letting go.

Letting Go in the Eastern Sierras, 2019

Doors to Open or Shut

As you know if you’ve been reading my writing for any period of time, I am drawn to metaphor in a big way. This is how the Holy Spirit often communicates deep things to me, in figurative, metaphoric terms. Biblical metaphors catch my attention constantly. When I share what I’m seeing, those metaphors become part of the flow of thoughts about how Scripture comes to life for us.

The metaphor that has caught me this week is that of doors.

There are 154 references to doors in the Old and New Testaments. Many of these refer to literal doors, and many biblical authors use doors as a metaphor.

So, before we look at some of these instances and find applications, a few things about doors in general, their characteristics and uses.

Doors can be made of many different substances—glass, wood, metal, plastic, or other natural or manmade materials. They can be flimsy, or they can be strong and impenetrable unless they are opened.

Most doors have hinges that allow them to swing open or swing shut. If they don’t have hinges, doors must be able to be pushed or pulled out of the way, as with pocket doors, sliding barn doors, or garage doors. If a door can’t be opened and shut at will, then it’s functioning as a wall, and not as a door.

Doors have to be tall enough for a fairly tall person to walk through without bending. They also have to be wide enough for a fairly broad person to pass through. If a door is too short or too narrow, it will not give equal access to a variety of sizes of people or animals.

Doors are to keep some things in and other things out. They are a barrier of protection, giving the owners of said doors the choice of who is allowed to share their space or come and go freely. Some doors have locks on them, which provide an additional layer of security against trespassers.

We’ll see now some of the ways that these purposes for doors figure in Scripture and come to life for us.

The first biblical reference to a door relates to sin. Isn’t that interesting? Early in the Genesis account of the first family, God accepts Abel’s sacrifice, but finds Cain’s unworthy. Cain complains that God is unfair in his assessment of his offering, and God replies:

 “If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.” (Gen. 4:7)

Just outside the door of Cain’s heart crouched a roaring lion of sin, ready to pounce. Cain opened the door, murdering his own brother, and had to live the rest of his life as an outcast and fugitive. Sin came and marred the perfection of God’s garden, and ever since, sin has been crouching at the door of the human heart, ready to pounce.

Even after we place our lives in God’s hands and he saves us, we still must often deal with this unwelcome trespasser who crouches at the door. Will we open the door, as Cain did, or say, “Get behind me, Satan” as Jesus did, and shoo him away?

Think now about the Israelites just before their exodus from Egypt. Their ability to save their firstborn sons depended on the applying of blood to the doorways of their homes as a sign.

Take a bunch of hyssop, dip it into the blood in the basin and put some of the blood on the top and on both sides of the doorframe. None of you shall go out of the door of your house until morning. When the Lord goes through the land to strike down the Egyptians, he will see the blood on the top and sides of the doorframe and will pass over that doorway, and he will not permit the destroyer to enter your houses and strike you down. (Ex. 12:22-23, NIV).

The doorframes daubed with blood were the key to distinguishing those who were to be saved from the devastation of the final curse on Egypt as a consequence of their treatment of the Hebrew people.

After their exodus, Moses received the Law at Sinai, and when he reiterated the laws of God before they entered the Promised land, he instructed the people to “write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates” (Dt. 6:8). This parallel to the Passover story reveal’s God’s apparent love of irony. The prescription of Deuteronomy 6 is still a good prescription today. As we come and go from the relative safety of our home to a larger world, we are wise to post reminders at the doors or our homes and hearts.

Religious Jews still hang mezuzah’s next to their doors that contain a small scroll imprinted with Scripture representing their covenant with God. They lovingly touch the mezuzah when they enter and exit the home.

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

As a new believer living in New York, I remember tacking a piece of paper with Romans 12:2 inside the door of my apartment, reminding me not to conform myself to the world I was about to enter, but to be transformed by the renewing of my mind. This would remind me of the doorway in my heart and mind that I had the power to open or shut, depending on what was seeking to enter.

As the Jews began their long sojourn in the wilderness, they built an elaborate tabernacle of worship and carried it with them. This was a holy structure that had doors. Guarding the tabernacle warranted the commissioning of Levites to be doorkeepers. It was essential that the holiness of the sacred space inside would be guarded and separated from the profane atmosphere and activities outside.

Doors, both literally and figuratively—have always been necessary to divide the sacred from the ordinary. Our places of worship should be honored and kept holy. And because God seeks worshippers who will worship him “in spirit and in truth,” our bodies and minds need also to be kept holy and set apart. We are to guard the doors of our hearts from any physical or cultural elements that might make us unclean.

A favorite Psalm verse reads,

“Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere; I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of the wicked” (Ps. 84:10. NIV). When given a choice between the peace and honor of serving humbly as a member of God’s household or partying and luxuriating with the sinful and scornful, which will we choose? Door number one or door number two?

In many cases the door in question is the door or our mouths. Psalm 141:3 includes the prayer, “Set a guard over my mouth, Lord; keep watch over the door of my lips.” Just as God’s physically sanctuary required doorkeepers, the sanctuary of our hearts must be guarded at the door of our lips. This corresponds to Jesus’ teachings about how the words of our mouths reveal the contents of our hearts. What have we been letting in and what have we been keeping out? Our words will reveal both, for better or worse.

Jesus utilized the door metaphor in some other ways. When teaching about spiritual disciplines, he emphasized their private nature:

“When you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you (Matt. 6:6).

Behind our doors is where our loving relationship with our Lord is nourished and cultivated. It is a secret sanctuary. Jesus wants us to be satisfied with our intimate, private worship, and not require the praise of humans. Looking for human affirmation actually robs us of the rewards of our worship.

As we pray (behind those doors) for provision, wisdom, understanding, or divine help, Jesus exhorts us to “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened” (Matt. 7:7-8). Prayer opens the doors of heaven and God pours out blessings.

Doors also play a part in Jesus’ parables illustrating the Kingdom of Heaven. The virgins who had not brought oil for their lamps found themselves shut outside the doors of the wedding feast (Matt. 25:10). Jesus describes his worthy servants as those who are watching for the return of the Master, ready to open the door for him upon his return from a far country (Luke 12:35-37). We are to be near to the door, alert, watching for him, quick to welcome him.

A negative reference to doors applies to the “teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites” when they “shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to” (Matt. 23:13, NIV). Ironically, it is these kinds of religiously prideful and arrogant people who will find the door shut in their faces when Jesus fully establishes his glorious kingdom.

This is not a popular teaching in these post-modern times, but Jesus clearly stated those who will be saved are those who “enter through the narrow door.” Many travel the wide way and when they come to the door, “many…will try to enter and will not be able to…you will stand outside knocking and pleading, ‘Sir, open the door for us,’ but he will answer, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from’” (Luke 13:24-25, NIV). This can be a frightening thought, but our fear of God hopefully motivates us to ever be seeking his will and pleasure, and not just our own.

I hope I’ve provided enough examples to convince you of the value in considering this metaphor of doors in Scripture and applying it to our work and worship until Jesus returns. I’ll conclude with a well-known and loved biblical reference to a door:

Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me” (Rev.3:20).

This could almost serve as a summary statement of much of what has already identified about doors. Jesus is always on one side of the door. Will we open the door to him? When we come to his door, will he open it to us?

This depends on our choice, our clear decision that we want to be in his company always and forever. Then we consciously and consistently live in ways that demonstrate our choice to love him above all else.

There is No Try

This is a revisiting of the idea of reframing–challenging the self-defeating strategy of “trying” to pursue a worthy goal, and actually “training” to do it.

Ruth E. Stitt

If you are a Star Wars fan, you’ll recognize this title as part of Yoda’s famous proverb: “Do. Or do not. There is no try.” I’m borrowing this from Yoda and applying it to how Scripture comes to life when we are faced with the hard things.

One of my avenues for ministry for many years has been my work as a Licensed Professional Counselor. In the initial stages of therapy, it is essential to help clients to identify, define, and refine their goals in life and use those goals to inform the goals for therapy. Much is revealed in the process about the client’s worldview, values, history, and temperament. If we skip over this important step, both client and therapist may wind up frustrated or unsatisfied, because neither of us is clear about where we are headed. We may have to readjust the coordinates later, but it’s…

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