John 16:1

“I have said all these things to you to keep you from falling away.”-John 16:1

Have you ever felt like you were hanging on by a thread, thinking “I don’t know if I’m going to make it?” As you have walked the road with Jesus, have you wondered how you could keep going or doubted whether he even cared?

Jesus was clear that life’s road would not be easy. He wasn’t inviting the disciples to live for themselves by pursuing material comforts. Instead he called them to live in the way of the cross, which is the way of service, sacrifice, and self-denial.

When you are hated for following Jesus, remember that he too was hated. When life is so painful that you can barely breathe, know that as Jesus hung on the cross, every breath he took was excruciating. Loving through pain is uncomfortable, but as you live in that reality, let it stir your thirst for the one who will one day restore all things to wholeness.

Jesus, one day when all is revealed in glory, all earthly pain shall cease. You call me into marvelous light, yet for now, I am left stumbling in the darkness. Help me to always see your beacon of hope. Amen. 

John 15:20

“Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours.” -John 15:20

In The Cost of Discipleship (1937/1995), German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him to come and die.” Sometimes, as Western Christians, we imagine following Christ will mean a life full of material blessings like a warm house, hot food, and plenty of amenities. We expect our relationships will be conflict free and always rewarding, but that was never the message of Jesus. Indeed, this is the basic theology of the prosperity gospel.

In John 15:20, Jesus told his disciples that they could expect persecution, essentially saying, “I’ve been persecuted and you will be too. I am entrusting you with the message of life! You are privileged to carry my beautiful message of love, grace, and welcome, and still, people will mock you, persecute you, and maybe even kill you,” and we think, “Great! Sign me up!”

But Jesus also said, “If they kept my word, they will also keep yours.” A life sown in the soil of suffering often produces gospel fruit. Where there are thorns, there are often magnificent blooms.

Jesus, I confess that when you say that persecution will come, I feel afraid and resistant, but I place my life in your hand. Use me to proclaim your true gospel, and may I be a conduit of your grace. Amen.

John 14:1

“Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me.”-John 14:1

Anxiety filled the room. Judas had gone off into the night after a tense interaction with Jesus. They were all left wondering what had happened and what was going to happen. Jesus told them he was going away and that they could not follow, even though they had been following him for three years. They looked around at one another, filled with confusion.

Jesus looked at them, his eyes filed with compassion. Knowing their hearts, he said, “Don’t let your hearts be troubled.” In other words, Jesus was telling them, “Men, I see your anxiety and confusion. Don’t worry. I’ve got this.” He knew that they did not need a lecture on the theology of justification; they needed to know that he understood their anxiety and that he would not let them down.

Too often, we provide intellectual rationalizations for people’s hurts, but in our pain we do not need a well-reasoned theology of suffering; we need a person. Any theology that is not based upon the person of Jesus Christ is useless. Jesus did not minimize the severity of what was happening; that would have been disingenuous. Rather he said, “Guys, I know you’re scared, but the father and I, we’ve got this.”

Jesus, fears assault me again and again–fears of abandonment, fears of loss, and fears of hurting people, or being hurt by them. When I feel afraid, I clamor for answers and explanations, when what I really need is you. Let me rest in your presence, knowing that your strong arms will never fail me. Amen.

Thoughts on a 9/11 morning

I was pondering 9/11 this morning. It is hard to believe it was 18 years ago. Since then, there has been more fear, pain, brokenness, and division. More disintegration. This is not the way it is supposed to be.

Let me invite you to do something today: put Jesus’s words into practice. He said, “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” How could you do this today?

1) Take 5 or 30 minutes to spend some time in prayer for those who anger you—terrorists, liberals, conservatives, foreigners, your kids, your spouse, etc. Take an inventory with God and ask him to bless them.

2) Before you share an article about why other people are wrong, slow down and pray. Ask yourself, “am I promoting love or hate? Wholeness or division?”

3) Show compassion for those parts within yourself that are not yet integrated. Thank God for his tender compassion toward you.

Normalcy Reshuffled

For a while, the reshuffling of normalcy may leave us out of center, askew. You may find yourself a man or woman without a country. That’s where I want you to be so that you can find the country of God. Our old “country” doesn’t make sense; we can’t buy it anymore. We really can’t believe it. We can’t worship it as we were trained to do. Actually, this pattern of falling apart precedes every transition to a new level of faith. If one is not prepared to live in that temporary chaos, to hold the necessary anxiety that chaos entails, one never moves to deeper levels of faith or prayer or relationship with God. Notice again that almost every theophany (revelation of God) in the Bible begins with the warning not to be afraid. The fear is totally predictable; but if we give in to our fear, we will never be able to move to the next level.

Whenever we’re led out of normalcy into sacred space, it’s going to feel like suffering. It’s letting go of what we’re used to. That causes suffering. But part of us always has to die.

-Richard Rohr, Everything Belongs

Disquietude

Last month, in honor of Eugene Peterson, Fathom Magazine ran a contest inviting folks to submit Psalm paraphrases. Those chosen appeared in this month’s issue and they are excellent. My paraphrase of Psalm 77 was not chosen, but I wanted to share it, hoping it might be a blessing to some. 

I do not hold back my tears from God.
Oh that he would hear my painful wailing,
that he would not be deaf to my disquietude.

In the depths of despair,
when all is blackness,
I grope around for my Comforter.
I strain to reach him, yet my hands come up empty.
How can I rest in peace without him?

Even as I think about him, tears stain my cheeks;
I try to pray, but what’s the use?

Breathe.

My pain blinds me, but you make me see.
Still, my words are held captive by my suffering heart.

I turn my thoughts to the past,
which seems so long ago.
I find my tongue, “Help me to remember joy’s melody!
let your mercy shine light into my darkness.”
I think long and hard.
“Will I always feel rejected by God?
Will he always be disapproving?
Has he stopped loving me?
Has he checked out of my life?
Has he forgotten how much I depend upon his grace?
Must I be crushed by his anger rather than upheld by his love?”

Breathe.

I tell myself, “Remember the past.
Remember God’s goodness to his people.”

Yes, I must recollect what God has done.
I need to recall his never-ending love.
“I will turn my thoughts to every good thing you have done, Father,
and when my thoughts stray, I will turn again to your goodness.
Your way, God, is the right way.
Why do I even consider that anything else compares with you?
You are the wonder-working God.
All I need to do is open my eyes and I can see your handiwork!
Again and again, you have saved your people from impossible situations,
generations have tasted your goodness.”

Breathe.

“When the oceans and the rivers see you, O God,
they retreat in awed surrender.
Even the very depths of the ocean
cannot hide from your glorious might.
At your word, O LORD,
Storms rained upon the earth,
torrents prevailed
lightning assailed
everywhere, accompanied by
thundrous wails.
All creation bowed to your command
winds whirling
with staccato flashes
and booming crashes.
You are the Lord of the lightning
and you are the gentle shepherd.
Your unseen presence
leads your people through life’s storms.”

Prismatic Praise

Write 31 days, day 12

Writing prompt: praise

What does it look like to live a life of praise? Can we praise in sorrow as well as joy? In celebration and lament? I think about Job sometimes. He faced loss and suffering of mythic proportions. He laid his complaints before God. Did he ever stop praising?

Here’s the thing: I think that sometimes Christians get it in mind that a restricted emotional wavelength is preferable. Joy is welcome. Happiness, sure. Also contentment. We even allow sorrow–for a season, but then we expect it to give way to happiness. Do we believe that God is somehow incapable of handling prismatic emotions? The biblical record corrects us. We see men and women living lives of praise who deal with fear, anger, sadness, grief, and shame as well as joy. Perhaps when we bring all of these feelings before his throne, we truly offer robust praise.

For reflection: as often as you think of it today, ask yourself how am I praising God in this moment.

The Key

In the shadows I sit
imprisoned in fear,
alone and afraid
year after year.

I wonder alone
will darkness lift?
constant companion
suffering’s “gift.”

I see Jesus coming
carrying a key,
I think to myself
he’ll set me free.

He opens the door
and enters the space,
he sits down with me
tears stain his face.

I ask, “are we leaving?”
He says, “no, not yet.
Your pain continues,
but child, don’t fret.”

He gazes at me
with love in his eyes,
“I’ll be with you
until darkness dies.”