Monday, December 29, 2014

Music Monday: Over the Rhine

A new-to-me husband and wife duo: Over the Rhine  

HT: Ryan Laughlin - thanks for the intro.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Gender & Grace

I was first introduced to Mary Stewart VanLeeuwen in the early 1990's through a Presbyterian journal. Although I wasn't quite ready for her ideas, I was impressed with her attitude of humility and her gracious tone.  

The distinguishing marks of prominent feminists at that time, were anger and denigration of men, NOT humility and grace!  I found Ms. VanLeeuwen antithetical to my views of feminism.  I also found her theological views antithetical to mine…or at least too much of a stretch for me to assimilate at that time.  But her attitude and tone struck a basic chord in me and caused me to remember her.  

In particular, her call to women to wait patiently and humbly for the Spirit of God to do a work in his people that would lead to greater respect for and incorporation into the "important" aspects of civic and church life, was powerful.  Though she sincerely believed that things were askew in the church, she also sincerely believed that being assertive, angry, and demanding were not Christian avenues to fomenting biblical change. 

I am just now…nearly 25 years later…getting around to reading her books.  My respect continues to increase based on her scholarship and her honesty.  She holds tightly to the foundational truths of the Scriptures, holding them in higher regard than American cultural norms…something MANY of us are hard-pressed to do.  We perceive the interpretations of our own time and place as representative of The Truth, and sometimes refuse to see the distorting effects of the Fall on our own application of God's creative and redemptive work.  She assigns responsibility to both men and women for the current state of gender perception and roles.  She considers multiple anthropological studies, philosophy of culture, created design, nature, nurture, biology, psychology, etc. as influences on our perceptions of gender in the narrative of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration.  

Because of her wide-reaching approach and her reverence for God's Truth and creative design, I commend her writing to you as worthy of consideration. 

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Happy Christmas Eve

Beloved, be it this Christmas Eve our care and delight to prepare ourselves to hear again the message of the angels; let us read and mark in Holy Scripture the tale of the loving purposes of God from the first days of our disobedience unto the glorious Redemption brought us by this Holy Child:

Thus we were heirs to endless woes
Til God the Lord did interpose
For so a promise soon did run 
That He would redeem us by his Son.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Once Upon a Time...

This is no fairytale.  Except it kind-of-sort-of does involve dragons and warfare and rescue, so maybe in a subtle way, it actually IS.

Once upon a time, I was proud.  

- that I subscribed to the most accurate confessions

- that I knew and recited the definitive creeds of Christendom

- that I had chosen a superior denomination

- that I had chosen a superior church within that superior denomination

- that I read the most astute theologians, both modern and ancient

- that my faith wasn't blind, but well-reasoned and intellectual

- that my church sang the *best* hymns - after all, we used the BLUE Trinity hymnal rather than the compromised RED version

That final admission nauseates me.  But it's true.  Secretly, in my heart of hearts, I believed we were "better than" based on this absurd criteria.  When I attended other churches, my first-line response was one of judgement…every single time.  No grace.  No love.  I didn't care about their hearts…and apparently, I didn't care about MINE either.

Tightly-pursed lips in vain conceal
What supercilious brow 
And heav'n-raised promontory
Willingly flaunt.

I wrote that little ditty about someone else, but I might as well have been describing myself sitting in any "other" church.  

And all of this came AFTER leaving the pride-filled life of a legalist!  I had abandoned the burden of a performance based life.  I no longer carried the weight of DO's and DON'Ts as my primary measuring stick.  And yet…I once again found myself in the same place.  Different issues.  Same heart.

I didn't *know* I was proud.  I thought I was *thankful*.  Thankful to have learned and grown and understood enough to get out of that place of oppression and deceit.  But I was still under a yoke…a yoke of SHOULD's and OUGHT's.  A yoke of comparison.  A yoke, not of earning salvation, but of proving myself worthy of maintaining that gift…a perpetual pursuit on that hamster wheel of sanctification, chasing the ever-elusive "good enough."

Every pursuit…every yoke other than Christ's will eventually exhaust us and bring us to our knees. 

God is more resolute than we are and he has ways of delivering us from the burdens we place ourselves under.  Those ways may not always shout MERCY and RESCUE, but that's exactly what they are.  He certainly knew what I needed…and he brought me low.  Sure…my humiliation came at my own hand and as a result of my own choices...yet it was clearly the design of God to humble me.  To root out the foolish pride that I didn't even recognize.  So much of what I loved and clung to - things that masqueraded as good and right and spiritual - didn't matter a whit, but I couldn't SEE that as long as I was standing on my own two feet with the eyes of the elder brother.

Helpless, weak, needy, blind, faint, broken without remedy...THIS is what I needed to be, feel, experience.  He knew that and, in his mercy, he brought it to pass.  All of my idols lay shattered around me.  I labored to reassemble them, only to see them topple again…and again…and again, until I was too weary to even try.    

It was then - as he has promised - that he gave me rest.  He removed the heavy yoke I had submitted to.  He sent rescuers to carry me, to help me stand, and to walk beside me.  

Somehow I doubt that this is my last experience of this kind.  I expect that in another year or two or twelve, I'll look back and recognize the new ways that pride has taken root and the surgical precision that my wise Father has used to extract it.  But every "procedure" increases my reliance on him and my confidence that he knows exactly what he is doing and that he is, once again, manifesting his commitment to rescue me from sin and self. 

He is committed to remaking me - transforming me from glory to glory - until my face shines with the radiance of his reflection.   This is why he came.  And I rejoice in his coming! This redemption is what makes Christmas glorious for all of us.  Thanks be to God.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Advent People: Waiting for The God Who Heals

Jeremiah 8
My sorrow is beyond healing,
My heart is faint within me!
Is there no balm in Gilead?
Isaiah 30
The light of the moon will be as the light of the sun
and the light of the sun will be seven times brighter, 
like the light of seven days 
on the day the Lord binds up the fracture of his people
and heals the bruises he has inflicted.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Advent People: Waiting for Peace

One of many troubles we endure while waiting for Christ to come, is conflict.  Personal, family, corporate, community, national, and international conflicts affect each of our lives to varying degrees.  Conflict is inescapable and is troublesome at any level of relationship, producing anxiety, fear, uncertainty, sorrow, even hatred.  In full flower, it births destruction - of individuals, families, churches - and finds its most grotesque expression  in warfare, which makes us undeniably aware of just how far we are from that Peace on Earth that Christ came to bring!

The following commercial has made the internet rounds already and the emotion of it either draws us in or alienates us, depending on our disposition.  But even if we initially resist its sentimentality, it speaks to a desire deep within each of us to experience a pervasive and permanent peace among humanity.  

The commercial is based on a historical moment in World War I, referred to as The Christmas Truce of 1914: a series of widespread but unofficial ceasefires in the week leading up to the holiday.  Soldiers crossed trenches to exchange seasons greetings and talk. In some areas, men from both the German and allied armies ventured into "no-man's-land" on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day to mingle and exchange food and souvenirs. There were joint burial ceremonies and prisoner swaps, while several meetings ended in carol-singing. Men played games of football with one another, providing one of the most enduring images of the truce.  (Wikipedia)   
From The Illustrated London News of January 9, 1915:
"British and German Soldiers Arm-in-Arm Exchanging Headgear:
A Christmas Truce between Opposing Trenches"

The profound beauty of this story resides in the unstated premise that it is the Coming of Christ alone that holds the power to unite enemies in triumphant songs of common joy.  While we wait for this full and final resolution, incidents like this one grant us a tiny taste of what that moment might feel like, and we draw courage and hope to sustain us while we wait for that day. 

Come quickly, Lord Jesus, and make all things new!
Additional information and artistic interpretations of The Christmas Truce: 

An educational article: Christmas Truce at the World War I Front     
A NYTimes article: The Truce of Christmas, 1914

The movie (w/ subtitles): Joyeaux Noel 

Fontbonne University's stage version: All is Calm

The newly-released picture book from STL's John Hendrix: Shooting at the Stars

A folk song by John McCutcheon:

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Advent People: Waiting for Rest

Come unto him all ye that labor
Come unto him that are heavy laden
And he will give you rest.
Take his yoke upon you and learn of him,
For he is meek and lowly of heart,
And ye shall find rest unto your souls.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Advent People: Blessed Are Those Who Mourn

Dan Allender, author of The Cry of the Soul (one of several of his books which has made a profound impact on my life), has written a poignant article about the role of lament in the Christian's life.  As we navigate this life, waiting for Christ to come and to make all things new, we often find ourselves in a place of mourning.  Allender powerfully suggests that applying a positive attitude and glossing over the struggle are neither fully human or fully Christian responses.  

Below are some highlights from a rather lengthy article of his titled, The Hidden Hope in Lament.  I commend to you the full version, and hope to merely whet your appetite by providing these excerpts.

A lament uses the language of pain, anger, and confusion and moves toward God.

The cry of pain is our deepest acknowledgment - we are not home. We are divided from our own body; our own deepest desires; our dearest relationships. We are separated and long for utter restoration. It is the cry of pain that initiates the search to ask God, What are you doing? The cry of pain also reveals our heart of anger.

This kind of anger is not merely a brash assault - an adolescent swagger that enjoys taking on the big guy. It is far more serious. It is a cry that ease, even relief, is not enough - far more, it is the cry of the soul that says: "I must have a new perspective, or I will die. I would rather face your wrath than exist in this agony with no more perspective than I have now." Anger in lament reveals the utter seriousness of the cry. Not all anger at God is good, but an anger that moves the heart to confusion, to feeling trapped between our belief in him and our movement away from him, opens the heart to redemption.

Confusion experienced in the middle of asking tough questions opens the door to a new perspective. And the perspective is glimpsed in recalling God's way of redemption.

If one wants redemption, it will not be in comfort, nor ease - it will be in the darkest moments of disaster. He does not offer redemption to those who are well or to those who live in light. Redemption comes when nothing else will do.

Lament is a search - a declaration of desire that will neither rest with a pious refusal to ache, nor an arrogant self-reliance that is a hardened refusal to search.

The language of lament is oddly the shadow side of faith. To whom do you vocalize the most intense, irrational-meaning inchoate, inarticulate anger? Would you do so with someone who could fire you or cast you out of a cherished position or relationship? Not likely. You don't trust them - you don't believe they would endure the depths of your disappointment, confusion. And so the lament is never sung together, nor the anger ever addressed for fear that consequences would occur that are more devastating than the potential joy of reconciliation.

The person who hears your lament and bears your lament against them, paradoxically, is someone you deeply, wildly trust. It is the paradox that opens the heart to unfathomable rest.  Lament cuts through insincerity, strips pretense, and reveals the raw nerve of trust that angrily approaches the throne of grace and then kneels in awed, robust wonder.

Allender then argues eloquently and at-length for the public, corporate expression of lament.  He concludes:

Why is it so important that lament be a rich part of the worship of the people of God? I suspect there are two primary reasons: universality and accountability.

Pain separates. To have a terrible headache is to experience one's body as an enemy. To suffer the loss of a spouse is to feel separated from a world of couples. Pain, anger, and confusion deepen our loneliness. If 200 people in a congregation sing - "Will the Lord reject forever? Will he never show his favor again?" (Psalm 77:7), only a minority will enter those words in the present, but the majority will know that pain from the past and anticipate it in the future. To sing in sorrow is to befriend one another and to authenticate we are not ultimately alone, even if no one can fully comprehend our pain now. The awareness we are not alone increases our courage to honestly look at the pain and to struggle to know God. It gives us less excuse to withdraw from fellowship assuming either no one understands me, or everyone else has his or her life in order. Those assumptions destroy the integrity of true Christian community.

Second, to sing sorrow in congregation opens the door to accountability. Pain not only separates, but it also numbs the heart. Nothing is more common than for a person who has been deeply hurt, disappointed to make an internal oath: "I will not be hurt again." The oath leaves the heart calloused and blind to the heartache of others and the passion of God.

After years of therapeutic endeavor, I would claim it is one of the prime strategies of Satan. If the heart is shut-down to desire and disappointment, then something profoundly human is lost and repentance at best will be mere behavioral change, and at worst, a pious charade.

But to sing together - to allow your sorrow and joy to be mine, and mine to be yours, requires me to stay alive to sorrow and to the struggle of my pain, anger, and confusion with God. And this will be the case even if I am currently fairing well.

If I am alive to God, then I am more apt to note your deadness and more gentle and courageous in calling forth the lament in you. To sing a lament together will enable me to more readily ask the question: How are you? What are you doing with God in the midst of your "presumed" and not unusual song of sorrow?

It seems inconceivable, but to lament together is to hold one another accountable to continue the pursuit of truth until joy dawns. It will.

Lament is not an end in itself. There should be no question that God does not want us to sing lament as the staple of our worship, nor should it be our internal hymn of choice. But lament opens the heart to wrestle with a God who knows that sorrow leads to comfort and lament moves to praise as sure as the crucifixion gave way to resurrection.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Advent People: Wait, Remember, Hope

The people of God are Advent People in every time and place. We are those who wait for Christ to come in his fullness and restore all things.  Waiting is tiresome.  It is excruciating at times and we can become disheartened and weary.  This perpetual state of waiting is often accompanied by pain, confusion, fear, loss, disappointment, and even anger, and the Psalmists, who experienced the same, give us a voice for those emotions: 

Psalm 77
Will the Lord absent himself for ever? and will he be no more intreated? Is his mercy clean gone for ever? and is his promise come utterly to an end for evermore? Hath God forgotten to be gracious? and will he shut up his loving-kindness in displeasure? 

Psalm 69

Save me, O God; for the waters are come in, even unto my soul.  I stick fast in the deep mire, where no ground is; I am come into deep waters, so that the floods run over me. I am weary of crying; my throat is dry. My sight faileth me for waiting so long upon my God!

We sometimes feel forsaken by God.  "Where are you?  Why have you forgotten me?  How long?"  These are the desperate cries of the soul.  We wait and wait and wait. But even though that waiting for our Lord to COME and to ACT is fraught with danger, we do not wait in complete silence and we are not left without aid.  One of the great gifts we've been given while we wait is a record of the Lord's past faithfulness.

All throughout Scripture we are told to REMEMBER the deeds of the Lord.  The Psalmists, while they cry out to him, and question him, and seek his deliverance, almost always end their prayers with a confession of confidence based on remembering the ways he has delivered his people in the past.  

Psalm 77

I will remember the works of the Lord, and call to mind thy wonders of old time. I will think also of all thy works, and my talking shall be of thy doings. Thy way, O God, is holy; who is so great a God as our God? Thou art the God that doest wonders, and hast declared thy power among the people. Thou hast mightily delivered thy people, even the sons of Jacob and Joseph. Thy way is in the sea, and thy paths in the great waters, and thy footsteps are not known. Thou leddest thy people like sheep, by the hand of Moses and Aaron.

Psalm 143
Yet do I remember the time past; I muse upon all thy works. Yea, I exercise myself in the works of thy hands.

Psalm 68
O God, when thou wentest forth before the people, when thou wentest through the wilderness, the earth shook, and the heavens dropped at the presence of God, even as Sinai also was moved at the presence of God, who is the God of Israel.  Thou, O God, sentest a gracious rain upon thine inheritance and refreshedst it when it was weary.  

Psalms 105-107 provide a long recitation of the works of the Lord and highlight his faithfulness in keeping his promises and  in preserving his people. 

In remembering we find hope.  We begin to trust the Lord again and we find the strength and courage to wait without despairing.  Remembering puts a confession of confidence in our hearts and on our tongues.

Psalm 145
The Lord is righteous in all his ways, and holy in all his works. The Lord is nigh unto all them that call upon him, yea, all such as call upon him faithfully. He will fulfil the desire of them that fear him; he also will hear their cry, and will help them. The Lord preserveth all them that love him…

Psalm 96

Let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad; let the sea make a noise, and all that therein is. Let the field be joyful, and all that is in it; then shall all the trees of the wood rejoice before the Lord.  For he cometh, for he cometh to judge the earth, and with righteousness to judge the world, and the people with his truth. 

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Advent People: Waiting for The God Who Remembers

As I heard pointed out in a recent sermon, we tend to emphasize the "high points" when rehearsing Noah's story…the getting on and off of the ark…while largely ignoring the passage of time and the happenings - or non-happenings - between those bookend events.  And yet, the getting on and off comprise only a fraction of the time encompassed by this story!  We tend to think of the in -between time in terms of 40 days and nights of rain when, in reality, a little more than a YEAR passed from the time the ark door was closed and reopened.

Imagine what that year must have been like!  It appears that, while God tells Noah ahead of time that he will send rain for 40 days and nights, he does not reveal that Noah will be in limbo for an additional 300+ days!  WE have the end of the story, but Noah didn't!  There he was, stuck inside this boat (imagine the WORK and the STENCH!!!), while the world as he knew it, vanished.  He watches, weak and helpless, as God reverses his creative act of separating the waters, opening both the fountains of the deep and the floodgates of the sky!  Those waters prevail and prevail and prevail while every vestige of life is blotted out.  Gone.  His earthly home has been unmade.
At the beginning, I'm sure Noah could still see remnants of the world he knew, and yet I also imagine he saw destruction and death all around.  At some point, all Noah can see is water.  All the identifying markers…the signposts of creation and life...are buried, leaving him without orientation even.  And so he waits.  And waits.  And waits.  He apparently waits in silence with no particular direction or explanation from God other than the promise he was given before he entered the ark: "I will establish my covenant with you."  But Noah can't see evidence of that covenant being kept from inside the ark, hemmed in by death.  He had to believe that God would come and act, making good on his promise.    

It is easy for us to think of the ark as a refuge…a deliverance from judgement…God rescuing his own.   And it WAS!  Yet I suspect that it didn't always seem so to Noah at the time - in the midst of the trouble and uncertainty and waiting - just as our own passage through prevailing waters seems, at times, more like abandonment than a rescue mission!   How desperately Noah must have longed for God to come and restore life and order…to set things right! 
And he does come.  God remembers Noah.  And then...he gives the rainbow as a reminder to HIMSELF of the covenant he is making with Noah and the whole earth.  While we wait for his coming and the ultimate renewal of creation, we, like Noah, must hold onto the promise and trust him to guide the future as he has the past.  We, like Noah, don't always see the acts of God - the opening and closing of the fountains of the deep…the restraining of the floodgates of the sky...the sending of the wind to disperse the waters - but we too must believe that he REMEMBERS and he ACTS on behalf of his people.  He is perpetually saving us and he can be trusted.  He cannot forget us…we are graven on the palm of his hand.
May God grant us the faith to wait well, trusting him to remember us and be true his own word.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Advent People: Waiting for the Promised One

"The seed of the woman shall crush the serpent's head."

I don't know whether Adam and Eve understood the full import of that promise when it was given, but I imagine they waited for its fulfillment with great expectation.

After all, they had experienced something we never have - the joy of life in the garden of God before sin marred the world.  What a stark and frightening contrast it must have been to be banished from their home…the sanctuary where the living God walked and talked with them!   They suddenly found themselves separated from their source of Life by an angel armed with a flaming sword!  

Since we have only known life in varying degrees of fallenness, we can only imagine what that shift must have been like and the desperate longing of our first parents to return to what they had known before. 

Imagine the heaviness of the slow and perpetual realization that they could not undo what they had done…the if only's…the ever growing grief of loss.  Their anticipation of that promised son must have been great!  And yet…that hope turned to further guilt, grief, and sorrow as that first "promised son" proved faithless by murdering their other son.  How could that promise ever be fulfilled?! 

They waited more than 130 years before the godly Seth was born.  And even though he perpetuated a godly seed, at their deaths, Adam and Eve were still waiting for the Promised One to come and definitively conquer their enemy.

And so, from the very beginning, God's people have been an expectant people. Watching.  Lamenting.  Longing. Anticipating.  Hoping.  Waiting for him to come.

**Illustration by Gustave Dore