True Community

A friend encouraged me to read 'Life Together' by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Last week I read the first chapter. Then, I read it a second time. This morning, I sat down and turned back to the first chapter a third time to reflect on one particular passage:  

'...God has put this Word into the mouth of men in order that it may be communicated to other men. When one person is struck by the Word, he speaks it to others. God has willed that we should seek and find His living Word in the witness of a brother, in the mouth of man. Therefore, the Christian needs another Christan who speaks God's Word to him. He needs him again and again when he becomes uncertain and discouraged, for by himself he cannot help himself without belying the truth. He needs his brother man as a bearer and proclaimer of the divine word of salvation. He needs his brother solely because of Jesus Christ. The Christ in his own heart is weaker than the Christ in the word of his brother; his own heart is uncertain, his brother's is sure. And that also clarifies the goal of all Christian community; they meet one another as bringers of the message of salvation.' 

I confess that this concept, while ringing true, stings in its truth. It has caused me to reflect on how many Christian communities I have been part of where this was not the reality. Bonhoeffer goes on to argue that a Christian community that is about anything other than, or in addition to Christ is not a Christian community at all, but is something else entirely - something he calls a 'religious fellowship'.

On any given Sunday morning in America, thousands of people gather together in these religious fellowships. They pass one another in the hallway, they shake hands, smile and nod at one another, choosing to wear masks of piety to protect what truly lies beneath. There is a great fear that binds them together and although never actually spoken there is a small inner voice that continues to whisper the lie,  'If we all keep pretending, maybe one day it will be true.' 

There is no freedom there. 

At what point did it become unacceptable to display weakness? At what point did it become dangerous to admit that we are all broken beyond repair? At what point did we decide that concealing our true selves was a better alternative than receiving the healing that God, in Christ, freely offers us? 

I submit that it was the moment we took our eyes off of Christ and looked towards ourselves for salvation. Without Christ, we are forced into an endless game of comparison that leaves no safe place for our true selves. We are so afraid of losing the allusion of control that we spend years resisting the freedom He has offered us. We have chosen to crouch in the bushes, weaving together a garment of fragile leaves instead of receiving the rich animal skin robe that God extends toward our shivering frames. 

I am done pretending. I don't want to spend any more time in hiding. I want to step out from behind my flimsy guard and cling to the truth that He has already looked upon my naked, ugly self and loved me in Christ. I want to experience the joyful freedom of being honest in Christ. I want to submit my whole self to His tender, compassionate gaze as He transforms me in Christ. And when I become discouraged or begin to doubt I want to know that I will hear the Word of God in the mouth of my brother and sister in Christ. 

'For nothing is hidden that will not be made manifest, nor is anything secret that will not be known and come to light.' - Jesus

On Weeping

Last night I was watching the latest episode of the popular NBC show 'This Is Us'. Week after week the writers manage to tap into some of the rawest human experiences and emotions. They have brilliantly woven a multi-generational story about love, laughter and loss that hits close to home for just about everyone who tunes in. As I sat there, with tears rolling down my cheeks, I shook my head, a bit incredulous. They got me again. That show always makes me cry.

Then, this morning, I read an interesting passage in Nehemiah:

'And all the people gathered as one man into the square...And they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses that the LORD had commanded Israel. So Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could understand what they heard...and he read from it...And the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law...and Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, 'This day is holy to the LORD your God; do not mourn or weep.' For all the people wept as they heard the words of the Law.' (taken from Nehemiah 8:1-9)

Reading this made me stop and ask the question, 'What was it that caused these people to weep?' 'What touched them all so deeply that the response was communal tears?'

The context of this passage is important. Leading up to this particular event, the nation of Israel had experienced a long and difficult history. After the fall of Jerusalem in 586 BC, the Jews had been driven from their land. For the next several decades they lived in exile in Babylon until an edict of Cyrus the Great had granted them permission to return. This public reading of the Book of the Law takes place following the return of some 50,000 Jews to the land around 538 BC.

Now, for the first time in many years, God had given these people an opportunity to start over. They responded by gathering together to make a solemn covenant with God to uphold His law from that day and moving forward. The public reading of the Book of the Law was to remind them of who God was and what He required from His people. Interestingly, the Book of the Law did not contain a long list of rules but an account of the people's historic relationship with God. The weeping occurred as they listened attentively to the story of their history as a people. In chapter nine of Nehemiah that story is laid out in great detail, beginning with creation and the call of Abram, and it goes on to recount the miraculous exodus from Egypt, the time of the judges and finally, the rise and fall of the kings. Throughout this telling the people are reminded over and over again of the numerous times that their fathers rejected God and went their own way. The weeping came from a knowledge of sin and its devastating affect on their lives. But following every mention of their failure there were also reminders of how God's enduring patience, mercy and love for them had continued to manifest itself in their ongoing preservation. So their weeping also came from an understanding that, in spite of everything they had done, forgiveness and second-chances were possible only because of who God is

At the conclusion of the public reading, Nehemiah says, 'Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine...for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.' It is important to note here that the joy of the Lord is the joy of the Lord. It is His joy at their repentance, His joy at their desire to obey, His joy at their understanding of Him. His joy was to be their strength. And the people did respond in joy...'because they had understood the words that were declared to them.'  

Now when I watch shows like 'This Is Us' and I am moved to tears by the fictional story of a family who, in spite of pain and loss, have remained strong, united by their bond of love, I have to ask the question, when was the last time that the reading of the Word of God caused me to weep? The story that He has written is far more beautiful than any story we could write on our own...and we already know the ending!

Home

'These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland...' - Heb 11:13-14

Over the past few years, these verses and those surrounding them have become quite significant to me. The longer I live here on earth the more I find myself less desirous of being here and more desirous of being somewhere else.

The initial reaction to making this kind of statement in one sort of company is a quick and fearful contradiction. People say, 'You don't really mean that' and go on to encourage me to embrace life and all that it has to offer. But, in another sort of company, the response is different. For those who have felt it too, the response will be a soft, 'Amen.' accompanied by an understanding nod.

You see, while life on earth is truly a magnificent, brilliant collection of beautiful moments; love and laughter, food and friendship, sunrises and sunsets...it is just that, a collection of moments that when examined more closely are found to riddled with small chips and cracks.  

Have you ever noticed that you rarely hear of a birth without also hearing of a death...or of a wedding without hearing about a divorce...or of a great accomplishment without also hearing of a defeat? All of life here on earth is like that. There is always a bit of not so great mixed in with the truly great. Every gain is accompanied by a loss.

And so, deep down inside, we long for a place where that will no longer be the case. Where there will be only life and love and gain. CS Lewis wrote of this place in 'The Last Battle' when the Unicorn, overcome with joy cries, 'I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now...' then turning toward the children calls, 'Come further up, come further in!'

This is the land that I long for. As age is bringing me to the place where I begin to accept the things that I cannot change and experience has brought me to the place where I am no longer surprised by disappointment, I now begin to look for the home I am being prepared for. 

By faith, I look to Jesus who said, 'If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you unto myself, that where I am you may be also...I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.'

May you and I find our home in Him today.

This Is Me

There has been a lot of stuff about honesty lately. Authors writing books that encourage readers to 'speak their truth', podcast hosts celebrating individuals who have been brave enough to 'live their truth' and a movie with a hit song proclaiming, 'I'm not scared to be seen, I make no apologies, this is me.'

This tidal wave of honesty looks and feels like freedom...but is it?

Yesterday in church, the pastor began his sermon by saying, 'I'm so tired of all the masks...the pretending that everything is good when it's not.'

And there it was, the word 'pretending'.

We are pretending when we believe that the pain-free answer to the question, 'How are you?' is 'Good.' The truth is, that for every 'Good.', another plate is added to our self-made armor until we don't even know who we are anymore. When we 'speak our truth' it is often not the truth. When we 'live our truth' we are often writing our own stories that may turn out badly. When we aren't scared to be seen we are often hiding behind a different mask.

So, what is the truth? 

The truth is, we are all broken beyond any repair this world can offer. Our minds, hearts, and flesh are all corrupted by sin. We are not good people. We do not think right thoughts, we do not desire right things, we do not seek to do what is right. We are all trapped in a zombie-like existence consuming things we think contain the promise of life. And, when we follow the world's advice and defiantly declare, 'This is Me!' we discover that, in time, the thrilling rush of self-love will fade and be replaced by an even greater inner turmoil.

'And you were dead in your trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience, among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind...'

Why is it so hard to speak this truth? Because, when Jesus gently peels off each of our masks to show us who we truly are, it is quite painful. It is deeply disturbing to discover how many layers there are and how ugly and twisted and wrong we actually are beneath them. We would really rather not know and go on pretending. But it is only under the Great Physician's scalpel that true freedom can be found.

We must begin to sing a different sort of anthem:

I am not a stranger to the dark. I am broken. I am scarred. I am bruised. I am scared. I am ashamed. I am sorry. This is me.

And He will reply: 

'But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses made us alive together with Christ - by grace you have been saved.'

And then can we sing: 

I have been brought into the light. I have been healed. I have been set free. I am forgiven. This is me.

Now that feels like freedom.

One Word

A couple of days ago I was visiting with a good friend of mine. We were sitting on her couch, talking about general life stuff and then, out of the blue, she asked, 'If you had to choose one word for 2018, what would it be?' 

On one hand these kinds of 'new year's resolution' questions are silly because there is no way for any of us to look forward into what is completely unknown to us and pick a word. In fact,  James even cautions, '...you do not even know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, 'If the Lord wills we will live and do this or that.' So, I can definitely pick a word if I want to, but only God knows the number of days that have been assigned to my life and what each of them will hold.

On the other hand these kinds of questions are intriguing because they do cause us to stop and consider what the future may have in store and how we will respond. For me, I begin thinking about where I might be sitting twelve months from now and, when I look back at the year, will I have grown as a person? Will there be any sort of discernible pattern to what I experienced and how it challenged me or caused me to think; will I have changed?

I turned to my friend and smiled, 'I could more easily give you a word for 2017!', I said, and went on to explain how, looking back, I could see a pattern to what God had been teaching me. Various themes on the same lesson kept popping up over and over again. I told her I wouldn't be surprised if the same concept carried over into the new year because I didn't think I was quite done learning it yet. 

'A person plans his course, but the Lord directs his steps.' - Proverbs 16:9 (NET)

New Beginnings

A new year has just begun. On Sunday night, as I sat down to write my weekly update for those who support Soul Hope Ministries through prayer, my thoughts were full of my highs and lows from 2017. I wrote, 'Tomorrow will be just another day, but because it's January 1, it will feel like a fresh start. It was very good of God to give us days, months and seasons. To grow, we need to experience change and, since the fall, we will always crave new beginnings.'

We do love a good beginning, don't we? For those of us who like to read, when we open a new book and the first sentence of the first paragraph draws us in, captures our imagination and sends a little tingle down our spine, we feel a deep satisfaction and settle in, fully expecting that, 'this will be a good one.' Who doesn't like the first day of their vacation, the beginning of a new semester, those few milestones they can claim are 'the first day of the rest of our lives'? It feels like we can breathe again, like anything is possible and, for just that moment, we are new.

The Bible begins with the words 'In the beginning' and we are told that God Himself declared it to be very good. Everything was new and everything was bursting with possibility and potential. There was no fear or shame, only confidence and hope. But then, we are told, things went very wrong. The first man and woman made a decision to act independently and reject the counsel of their Creator. They doubted His ultimate goodness and stepped forward to take what had captured the lust of their eyes, the lust of their flesh and their pride of life. This one decision changed everything and God declared that human life on earth would now be one of great pain and difficulty.

This is something we are quite familiar with. We experience the consequence of rejecting God's counsel each and every day. Nothing quite lives up to it's potential. That book we thought would be 'a good one' turns out to be a disappointment. The second day of our vacation turns out to be sort of crummy. Syllabus shock sets in. The second year of the 'rest of our lives' is way harder than we imagined it would be. Everything is in bondage, pulling at its chains to outstretch the looming shadow of death. 

The funny thing about being human is that we always seem to be able to look around and find something 'new' to place our hope in. We whisper to ourselves, 'maybe this time things will turn out better.' ...Really?

The awesome truth is that God is still good. Human decision did not and does not have the power to change or alter the character or purpose of God.

The awesome truth is that our yearning for a new beginning has already been fulfilled in the person and work of Jesus Christ.

The awesome truth is that the book that began so well and turned out to be a disappointment does have a final chapter that brings us back to the beginning, to a garden, where everything is finally and forever new.

Revelation 21:3-5 says, 'Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be His people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away. And He who was seated on the throne said, 'Behold, I am making all things new.''

Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, our New Beginning.