When we don’t recognize the answers to our prayers

11 11 2016

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To state the obvious, there’s a lot of pain, confusion, fear, and disappointment in the aftermath of the election. We’re all processing what happened and trying to predict what it might mean for the future. Tensions are high and words are often harsh and accusatory. And I’m not even referring to the general populace. I’m talking about those who identify as believers in Christ.

So, I thought it might be good to preach a little gospel to myself and anyone else who wants to listen in. Feel free to grab a cup of tea and get cozy.

Our culture may be saying a lot of things about us, and we may be saying a lot of things about each other, but God has also said some very specific things about His people. Here are a few of them:

We are created in His image, covered by the shadow of His wing, held in the palm of His hand, fearfully and wonderfully made, created for His pleasure and glory, chosen in Him before the foundation of the world, taught by the Holy Spirit, known, protected, shielded, shepherded, disciplined as beloved children, grafted into the vine, loved, cherished, set apart, adopted, His workmanship created for good works that He has foreordained for us to walk in.

Exhale.

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One good thing I already see happening post-election is that Christians in America are distancing themselves from political affiliations and reexamining their identity. As believers, we’re called to be in this world, but not of it. We may be citizens of a nation, but we’re called to live here as citizens of God’s upside-down kingdom. No earthly ruler is responsible for accomplishing what God has commanded His church to do.

God is calling His people to deep, meaningful, and powerful community. Can you imagine what would happen if we really believed all the truths God has spoken over us — if we walked into our inheritance and united our hearts, our creativity, and our energies in loving this broken world?

We need to own our identity as God’s sons and daughters and co-heirs with Christ, because the kingdom we live in determines the lenses through which we see all things, including the promises of God.

Consider Psalm 84:11-12. “For the Lord God is a sun and shield; the Lord bestows favor and honor. No good thing does he withhold from those who walk uprightly. O Lord of hosts, blessed is the one who trusts in you!”

When you read the words, “the Lord bestows favor and honor,” what comes to mind? Or what about the phrase, “no good thing does he withhold from those who walk uprightly”? If we view this promise through the lenses of the upside-down kingdom, we remember that “favor” from God may look like loving discipline of His child, and “honor” may look like bearing reproach for His Name, and the “good thing” He won’t withhold may be the suffering or persecution He knows we need to be conformed to the image of His Son.

The more we look through the lenses of the upside-down kingdom, the less God’s Word becomes about our personal or social agenda and the more it becomes about His glory and His kingdom.

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The only way to accurately see God’s promises and commands is through the right lenses, and when we do see clearly, life becomes a glorious adventure with Him. When we don’t get our way, we can still give thanks, because we believe in His sovereign plans and purposes and power. We trust that, whatever He chooses for us, it is an indication of our Father’s favor and His faithfulness to give good and perfect gifts to His children.

God is always only good in what He gives, and always only good in what He forbids. Therefore, the only true freedom is found in absolute submission to Him.

So, how do we live in submission to this King? What are the principles and laws of this upside-down kingdom?

They’re the exact opposites of the principles of the world or the so-called law of the jungle.

Jungle law says it’s every man for himself.
Kingdom law says consider others as more important than yourself, and the greatest in the kingdom is the servant of all.

Jungle law says might makes right.
Kingdom law says the weak confound the mighty.

Jungle law says kill or be killed.
Kingdom law says turn the other cheek, go the second mile, if someone asks for your coat, give him your shirt as well.

Jungle law claims that only the fittest will survive.
But kingdom law says become as a little child, the meek inherit the earth, and the pure in heart see God.

And here’s the secret to freedom and the unexplainable joy of God’s children. We know that the best gifts He gives are actually the ones that bow us the lowest, because God resists the proud and draws near to the humble.

God’s ways are higher than ours. He knows what we actually need (as opposed to what we think we want), and He is willing to crush us if that’s the way to resurrection. We see this imagery again and again in scriptural word pictures.

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Jesus is the vine, we are the branches, and the Father is the gardener. He prunes us according to His wisdom. To us it may look like He has cut away what was most beautiful in our lives, but He always prunes with purpose, that we might abide more deeply in Him and that we might bear much fruit.

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He is the potter and we are the clay. We feel the pressure and we want to squirm out of his grasp, but He is shaping us, molding us for His purposes. We can trust God’s love to be behind every painful stroke of His hand.

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He is the refiner and we are His gold. Left to ourselves, we would remain dingy lumps of metal with dirt clinging to our surface. His fire cleanses, purifies, strengthens. He knows exactly how hot the fire needs to be to burn away all our dross until He can see His face reflected in our lives.

We want these things in theory. We may even ask Him to prune our dead branches, to shape us into useful vessels, to burn away our dross. But when it happens in real life — when the sheers cut deep and the pressure feels unbearable and the fire burns hot, we can easily lose sight of God’s purpose and forget that the suffering is not only for our good and His glory, it’s the answer to our prayers.

Have you noticed that we never fathom the fullness of God’s ways? There’s always more than we can see. We look for physical healing and God heals our hearts. We ask for blessing and He sends pain that splits us wide open, because He knows that’s the only way our souls will ever learn to breathe.

Right now the people of God in America have an opportunity to be salt and light for such a time as this. May we welcome His working in us and trust His ways. And may we recognize the answers to our own prayers, even when they come disguised in the most surprising and unexpected packages.





Kocho, Part II

16 06 2016


One of my all-time favorite stories is the account of Joseph’s life, beginning in Genesis 37 when he was seventeen years old, and ending with his death in Genesis 50. The subtitles alone give an intriguing glimpse of the drama, conflict, betrayal, injustice, cunning, and ultimate triumph of his remarkable life. Check it out (with my mini synopses):

  • Joseph’s Dreams (in which he foolishly brags to his brothers about his dreams of future greatness)
  • Joseph Sold by His Brothers (in which their jealousy gets the best of them, Joseph is sold as a slave, and he gets his first taste of betrayal and injustice)
  • Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife (in which he determines to be the best slave ever, gains favor and trust with his master only to be thrown in prison for the very thing he refuses to do, and gets his second taste of betrayal and injustice)
  • Joseph Interprets Two Prisoners’ Dreams (in which he determines to be the best prisoner ever, gains favor and trust with the warden, gives good news to one of Pharaoh’s servants and asks for a returned favor, is forgotten for two more years, and gets his third, all-too-familiar taste of betrayal and injustice)
  • Joseph Interprets Pharaoh’s Dreams (in which thirteen years after he was first sold as a slave, he stands before the most powerful man in the world, calmly gives God credit for his gifts, interprets cosmically important dreams, and hatches a plan to save the known world from starvation)
  • Joseph Rises to Power (in which he gains favor and trust with Pharaoh and basically runs Egypt; no biggie)
  • Joseph’s Brothers Go to Egypt (in which his brothers come to buy food and don’t recognize him, so he messes with them a little bit)
  • Joseph’s Brothers Return to Egypt (in which they come back for more food and he messes with them again)
  • Joseph Tests His Brothers (in which the brothers humble themselves, and Judah confesses their sins and offers himself as a slave in place of Benjamin)
  • Joseph Provides for His Brothers and Family (in which Joseph reveals his identity to his brothers and says, “It was not you who sent me here, but God.” BOOM!)
  • Joseph Brings His Family to Egypt (and then . . .)
  • Jacob and Joseph Reunited (and then . . .)
  • Jacob’s Family Settles in Goshen (and then . . .)
  • Joseph and the Famine (in which he exchanges grain for land and buys the whole world for Pharaoh, and then . . .)
  • Jacob Blesses Ephraim and Manasseh (aka, Joseph’s sons, and then . . .)
  • Jacob Blesses His Sons (and then . . .)
  • Jacob’s Death and Burial (and then . . .)
  • God’s Good Purposes (“. . . you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” MEMORIZE THAT and then . . .)
  • The Death of Joseph. (The End.)

Only not The End, really. Because there are ripples through history and will be until Jesus comes back again.

Kocho Ali

And all that to say . . . Kocho. When I think about Kocho, I think of Joseph. How sometimes life doesn’t seem to make sense, and injustice is real. And in those times, we have a choice. We can whine, complain, and give up. Or we can believe that the God who sent Joseph to Egypt and meant it for good is the same God at work in our lives today.

Last October I shared Kocho’s story. (You can read it here if you missed it.) Kocho is from the Nuba Mountains, lives in a refugee camp in Doro, South Sudan, and works as a nurse assistant for Doctor’s Without Borders — both to help others and to try to save money to pay his way through school. And it seems like every single step he tries to take into his future dreams is met with roadblocks, setbacks, and miles of pointless red tape.

He’s been trying to get a medical degree to return to the Nuba Mountains and help his people, who for years have been caught in the crossfire between the government of Sudan and the rebels occupying their territory. But, as I explained in my previous post, Kocho is a man without an official ID. He has no papers and can’t obtain them, because anyone from the Nuba Mountains is considered a rebel by association. And without papers, it’s hard to be accepted anywhere for study, or even to cross borders, for that matter.

Kocho is brilliant, gifted, and eager, but one after another, doors slam in his face. Just when it looks like a way has opened, rules change for one program, or random requirements are added for another one. And what does he do? Wherever he finds himself, he determines to be the best he can. Just like Joseph.

He smiles. He serves. And when you ask him how he feels about the delays, he says God must want to teach him patience. He also says that he prays he will never achieve any success that would shift his focus away from Christ and onto himself. And he means it.

So, Kocho is content. He continues to work as a nurse assistant. He also pastors youth, teaches and leads singing in his church, and is currently studying business — partly because it was the only program he could get into for now, and partly to pave the way for entrance into medical school in the future.

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Kocho’s grades in business school last fall

And even as he smiles and serves and works hard at whatever his hand finds to do, he has no idea how he will pay for the education he needs to be able to eventually return to help his suffering people in the Nuba Mountains.

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Cathy and Ruth in Doro, South Sudan

So his friends (and mine), Ruth and Cathy, set up a fund. And you’re invited to give. And to pray. You’re also invited to share Kocho’s story, because the only way anyone will know about this fund is if people like you and me help spread the word.

And someday? When all God means for good in Kocho’s life bears its fullest fruit, we will have the joy of knowing we were part of this Joseph story — a story setting ripples in motion that I believe will continue to spread, bringing salvation and healing and hope to many, until Jesus comes back again.

Because it wasn’t a government or a war or rebels or armies or chance that sent him here.

It was God.

 

P.S. Whatever you choose to do,
Thank You, friends.
You always amaze.

 





A Word for 2016

9 01 2016

Small

A clay jar is a made thing, imagined and crafted by its maker. He determines its capacity and purpose, and expects only that it do what it was made to do.

In Perelandra (the second book in C.S. Lewis’ amazing space trilogy), the central character, Ransom, accomplishes a magnificent feat. He travels to a world inhabited by its first man and woman, and — by speaking truth to lies and ultimately defeating a demon-possessed tempter in hand-to-hand combat — he prevents a Genesis 3-type fall and secures a curse-free existence for all future inhabitants.

Before Ransom returns to Earth, he stands before the crowned king and queen of Perelandra, and the weight of what he has just accomplished begins to sink in. What will this mean for him in the future? What kind of fame, reward, and legendary status await one who rescues a whole world from brokenness, sin, destruction, and death?

An angelic being quickly reassures him with these words:

“Be comforted, small one, in your smallness. He lays no merit on you. Receive and be glad.”

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Not only does Ransom return home without trophies and accolades, he takes with him a wound on his heel that will remain a painful reminder of his battle with evil for as long as he lives. In a very literal sense, he is conformed to the image of Christ.

He receives the better reward.

And in his smallness, he is comforted.

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I think it’s safe to say that the wedding guests in Cana never gathered around the six stone water pots and lavished them with praise. The pots weren’t set on pedestals, festooned with garlands, and worshiped for the miracle of water into wine. Most likely, those water pots continued to function as ordinary water pots and the servants who’d filled them as ordinary servants. Except for what they knew. Which changed everything.

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But there is something in me that wants more. Something entitled. Something desperately selfish.

I say I want my life to be hidden in Christ, but I’m quick to bask in the praise of men.

I say I want to be dead to self, alive to God, and content with the portion He chooses for me, but I still find myself comparing, competing, envying, and resenting.

I say I want to be small in my own eyes, but my heart betrays me. When I don’t get credit for something I did? When I’m overlooked or excluded? When he answers my prayer for humility by actual humbling me? Then I see how far I have to go before I’m satisfied in Him alone, no matter what.

 

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Before John the Baptist was born, he was set apart to be the forerunner for Christ, and he fully embraced that calling in spite of the fact it largely meant a life of seclusion and eccentricity. And when the multitudes actually listened to him and redirected their attention to Jesus, John’s disciples were indignant for his sake. But he said,

“A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven. You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’ The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. He must increase, but I must decrease.

Stunning. But then? We get this glimpse at a tiny crack in John’s armor. He hears of all the miracles Jesus is performing, while he remains imprisoned in Herod’s dungeon, hidden, set aside, seemingly forgotten. So he sends messengers to Jesus, Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”

And Jesus skips the question asked and answers the implied one.

“Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.

Jesus said this knowing that John would remain in prison, and Herod would behead him at the request of a dancing girl and her vengeful mother.

But I believe He also said it tenderly, knowing what we don’t know and seeing what we don’t see.

We don’t know what transpired between John and his Father in the moments before and after this seemingly senseless and humiliating execution. We don’t see what he saw or hear what he heard — the “well done” and “welcome home” of the One he devoted his life to serve. Every question at last answered. Every longing finally fulfilled. His joy once and for all truly complete.

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So, my word for the year is “small.” And I want to be like these little ceramic jars, made by a potter friend to be left in random places at Christmas time, each one unique, and each with a note explaining to the finder that the jar is a free gift, given because of all Jesus has given him. Given for the joy of giving joy. No credit sought, and much gladness received.

And I pray I’ll embrace this sacramental smallness not only with words, but with my life. That I will mean it when I tell God I want to be a living sacrifice — one clay vessel among His many, cleansed, set apart, ready for Him to fill and use however He chooses, whether anyone ever notices me or not.

This is my prayer — for freedom from selfish agendas, freedom from entitlement, freedom from offense, freedom to be small.

To be comforted in my smallness.

To receive and be glad.

All for Him.





Prayer for the New Year

1 01 2016

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As we begin a new year, may our kind Lord teach us to pray, and to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom. Our time is short, and our God is great. May we make much of Him, leaning into His sufficiency, rejoicing in His goodness, resting in unfailing grace and mercies that are new every morning.

Today I remembered this simple little recording (probably from the 1980’s) of George and me singing these verses from Psalm 90, and wanted to share it here as a prayer for all of us.

And let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us.
And let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us.
And establish thou the work of our hands upon us,
Yea, the work of our hands, establish thou it.

Lord, thou hast been our dwelling place in all generations.
Lord, thou hast been our dwelling place in all generations.
Before the mountains were brought forth or ever thou hadst formed the earth
From everlasting to everlasting thou art God.

And let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us.
And let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us.
And let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us.

Amen. Grant it, Lord, for Your glory and our good.

Happy New Year, friends. Love, joy, grace, beauty, and peace to you. Thank you for all the ways you blessed me in 2015. Here’s to loving our God and one another well in the days ahead.





Led forth in peace

4 04 2015

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If we’re allowed to have a favorite chapter in the Bible, I’m pretty sure mine is Isaiah 55. I love the combination of imagery, poetry, and promise — how God is set apart as holy and higher, yet He calls us to come and eat what is good, to seek and find, to forsake our wicked ways and run into His arms of compassion.

I can almost hear the mountains breaking forth into singing, see the trees clapping their hands, and feel the earth stirring with purpose as His word succeeds in all He has planned.

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This has been a profound Holy Week for me, my senses more fully alive, and my heart more deeply moved by the price Jesus paid for our redemption. I think this is true for a variety of reasons, but surely one of them is the fact that, after I gather with the Body of Christ on Easter morning to celebrate how life once and for all conquered death, I’ll get on an airplane and fly across the ocean to the Horn of Africa. Lord willing, I’ll spend the next two weeks visiting friends who work in that region. Two weeks listening to their stories and hearing their hearts. Two weeks meeting the beautiful souls they serve and seeing the image of God in their faces. Two weeks walking among people whose hardships are heavy and whose daily lives bear little resemblance to mine, and yet whose hearts cry out for the same love, hope, peace, and purpose.

I don’t know what these two weeks will hold, but as I think about going, I hear a Voice, urgently calm and fiercely tender:

Come! Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.”

I know that my thoughts are not His thoughts, and my ways are not His ways. I know I’m utterly insufficient in myself to strengthen weak hands or feeble knees, but I also know the word that goes forth from God’s mouth will not return to Him empty. Like the rain and snow that water the earth, it will accomplish His purposes.

And I know that I will go out in joy and be led forth in peace — that no matter what happens, in the realest Real, the mountains will be singing and the trees keeping the beat. That all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.

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How do I know this? Because Easter happened. Because even though Jesus could have called down a legion of angels to take Him off the cross, He didn’t. He stayed there. And it wasn’t the nails that held him. It was love.

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Friends, will you pray with me over these next two weeks? I’d be so grateful. And have a beautiful, worshipful Easter! Jesus is risen. He really is. May we never lose the wonder.

 





Choosing to See

4 02 2015

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I haven’t watched the videos. Or looked at the photos. And I don’t intend to. But my imagination is alive and well, and that’s enough.

A man trapped in a cage, watching as the flames approach. Every measure calculated to ensure he experiences the maximum amount of terror and pain for the longest possible period of time before dying.

Then the brazen broadcast to a gaping world, and we all react as expected, with shock and horror and disbelief that any human with a soul could perpetrate this kind of evil against another human.

And then?

We have a choice.

We can question God’s power and goodness. We can harden our hearts and shut our eyes and refuse to let it be about us. We can throw up our hands in despair and indulge our flesh to numb the pain. We can cheer for acts of retribution and stock our basements with food and firearms. We can surrender to terror and live in fear.

“Your words have been hard against me, says the Lord. But you say, ‘How have we spoken against you?’ You have said, ‘It is vain to serve God. What is the profit of our keeping his charge or of walking as in mourning before the Lord of hosts? And now we call the arrogant blessed. Evildoers not only prosper but they put God to the test and they escape.’” ~ Malachi 3:13-15

Or we can stand squarely in the presence of the living God, who sees when a sparrow falls, and numbers the hairs on every head, and reigns sovereign over the affairs of men, and we can choose to see.

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Then those who feared the Lord spoke with one another. The Lord paid attention and heard them, and a book of remembrance was written before him of those who feared the Lord and esteemed his name. “They shall be mine, says the Lord of hosts, in the day when I make up my treasured possession, and I will spare them as a man spares his son who serves him. Then once more you shall see the distinction between the righteous and the wicked, between one who serves God and one who does not serve him.” ~ Malachi 3:16-18

We can fear the Lord, building each other up in Him, even as we weep with those who weep.

Because He is working out plans formed long ago with perfect faithfulness. And He was there. In that cage. As surely as He was in the fiery furnace with Daniel’s friends. I don’t know if the Jordanian pilot knew Him or saw Him, but I know Jesus was there, willing to be seen and to give the grace that has enabled martyrs through the ages to sing even as the flames rose around them.

We will not fear, because the God who orders our days is with us — the same God who opened Stephen’s eyes to the truer true, where instead of seeing rage-filled faces and jagged stones, he saw the Son of Man standing at the right hand of the Father. Instead of fear, he felt compassion and forgiveness for those whose hearts were darkened and filled with hate.

Evil has always been and — as long as this earth endures — always will be. But it will never win. Terrorists and tyrants have no authority except that which God allows for His kingdom purposes. It was true when Pilate condemned the Savior of the world to death on the cross, and it is true today.

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We have a choice.

We can return hate for hate, or we can pray to a God who is able to do immeasurably more than we ask or imagine, and ask Him to take even this extremity of evil and redeem it for good. We can love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. And when He calls us to suffer, we can be sure it is purposeful, and He will carry us in it with grace overwhelmingly, abundantly, and extravagantly sufficient.

Those who fear the Lord speak with one another, and heaven takes notes. He may not spare us from the flames, but He will spare us in the exact same way He spared His Son. And evil will again be the means of its own undoing.

This is what I will choose to see.





Echoes

25 11 2014

 

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A canyon can
be
a mountain top
salted with saints,
majestic ones,
in whom is

All
my delight.

Light
from glowing ember
singing star

Far
from distraction
by distraction

Near
His heart
and yours
and ours, we

Come
and take, eat,
this is one
body, one
spirit, one
hope, one
high calling to

Walk
worthy of
the bond of peace
over all
through all
in all
humility, and

All
shall be well, and
all
shall be well, and
all
manner of thing
was
is
and ever shall be

world without
end

well.

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I don’t often post poetry in this space, but today it seemed appropriate. My heart is full, thankful for gifts of God’s presence and people at Laity Lodge this past weekend, heavy for Ferguson and all the ways our pride and blindness rob us, leaning into divine purpose that makes all things new, and looking toward a day when the redeemed from every tribe, tongue, and nation will worship with one voice around the throne.

Thanks for the inspiration to the High Calling community, Marilyn McEntyre, who invited us to slow down and play with words, Vincent Bacote, who reminded us to be salt and light, the psalmist David, T.S. Eliot, the apostle Paul, doxology, and Julian of Norwich, who said:

“In my folly, . . . I often wondered why, by the great foreseeing wisdom of God, the onset of sin was not prevented: for then, I thought, all should have been well. This impulse [of thought] was much to be avoided, but nevertheless I mourned and sorrowed because of it, without reason and discretion.

“But Jesus, who in this vision informed me of all that is needed by me, answered with these words and said: ‘It was necessary that there should be sin; but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.'”

And so it shall. Hallelujah.








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