A good king, a change of heart

IMG_1512Alright, blog, it’s time to get back to my trek through the story of the Israelites. In my life recently, in the midst of my ups and downs, my immense unfaithfulness and God’s everlasting faithfulness, I have found myself aching to go back to these stories, the stories of a people loved and chosen and cherished by God, a people who continually turn from Him and a God who continually draws them back to Him.

When we last left off, I was returning to Chronicles to read the ancient stories again as they were told to the returning exiles. I had just related the change of seasons, from war to rest, between David and Solomon. The other day I was reading about the kings that came after Solomon, and the story of one really stood out to me: King Asa of Judah.

His story, told in 2 Chronicles 14-16,  recounts a spectacular reign of God-honoring reforms, victory, and peace on every side. Asa destroyed the idols and commanded his people to serve the God of their fathers.

However, 36 years into his reign, Asa of Judah faces the threat of the king of Israel, and instead of trusting in his God to deliver him, just as He’d done before, he takes the dedicated silver and gold out of the temple of the LORD and gives it to a pagan king to win him as an ally. With the help of this ally, he succeeds in getting the king of Israel to back off, but he doesn’t defeat him. Hanani the prophet says to him, “You have done a foolish thing, and from now on you will be at war.” (16:9)

Rather than listening to the prophet and turning to God, he gets angry and throws the prophet in prison. He mistreats his people, and three years later comes down with a disease and still refuses to turn to God for help (16:12). He dies, but he is buried in glory and honor, his reign still celebrated by his people.

He is commended as one of the great kings of Judah, he is still remembered as a “godly king who reformed Judah.” In 1 Kings 15, there is no mention of his turn from the LORD, only that he took the silver and gold out of the treasuries of the temple. He is remembered as a good king. But I can’t help but think, in light of 2 Chronicles, that in his personal relationship with God, in his cries behind closed doors, in his heart, he lost something…

He lost something.

Earlier in his reign, when faced with a vast army, he prayed: “LORD, there is no one like you to help the powerless against the mighty. Help us, O LORD our God, for we rely on you, and in your name we have come against this vast army. O LORD, you are our God; do not let man prevail against you.” (2 Chronicles 14:11)

What happened? How could he have gone from that to stealing from the temple to buy a foreign ally? Was it fear? Was it pride? I don’t know, but it troubles my heart, and I don’t want it to happen to me.

I don’t want to forget what the LORD has done, to forget His power, His goodness, His closeness, even when I’m lost in terror and darkness. I dont want to attribute success and prosperity to my own doing, when all good gifts come from the Father. I don’t want to win a battle on my own effort, but lose the war in the long run. I don’t want to turn my back on conviction, but rather I want to repent and seek the LORD. I want to come to Him, to humble myself before Him. I want my heart to be fully committed to the LORD, all my life, as is written about King Asa in 2 Chronicles 15:17—but I want it to be completely true, all the days of my life.

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A good day.

I had planned to post this on Small, Still Voices this week, but we’re currently taking a little hiatus. I didn’t want to wait to post this, seeing as it refers to the days we commemorate this week, so I’m going to publish it here as part of my personal act of worship.

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Community, we know what Friday is. It is a day of remembrance, and we call it good– because it is. This day we mourn our sin that caused the death of our Savior, but we also marvel at His grace, at His beauty, at His willingness to sacrifice His own life for the sake of ours. This day we think about His death, but we also know that the death of Christ was not the end of the story.

Today, I want to think about the night before this good day. I want to think about the night Jesus was betrayed, about the songs he might’ve sung at the last supper Passover meal, and the prayer he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane.

I am blessed to have been able to visit Jerusalem and see what’s left of the garden on the Mount of Olives, the tiny park of majestic, ancient olive trees enclosed in a metal fence. Olive trees can survive for centuries, but these trees may or may not have been there with Jesus on the night of His agony. It doesn’t really matter, because it was still beautiful to see these gnarled, stubborn trees growing and growing for so long that part of their trunks have to be held up by cinder-blocks just to keep them upright.

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The place was real, the olive press. Jesus knelt here and asked for the cup to be passed, asked to be spared from the suffering that would press His blood into the anointing oil of gladness that would save the world. And yet, He submitted. “Not my will, but Yours be done.” He prayed for us, too. He prayed for his disciples that couldn’t even stay awake long enough to keep watch and pray with Him.

Before going to the garden, Jesus ate a meal with His disciples, the Passover meal, where it was tradition to sing Psalms 113 to 118. I love studying these psalms and thinking about Jesus singing them. (We can’t know for certain that He did, but it is likely, and the psalms speak of His glory regardless. For this post, I am going to assume that these hymns were sung at Passover.) In Psalm 115, the disciples would sing about the idols of the nations with mouths that cannot speak and eyes that cannot see, and all the while here is their God sitting among them, signing hymns with them.

In Psalm 116, Jesus would sing, “How can I repay the Lord for all His goodness to me? I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord. I will fulfill my vows to the Lord in the presence of all His people. Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints. O Lord, truly I am your servant; I am your servant, your faithful son” (v.12-15).

Finally, in Psalm 118 comes the prophecy: “The stone the builders have rejected has become the capstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes” (v.22-23). On the night of His betrayal, the night that led into His suffering and death, Christ would sing verse 24, “This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.”

I encourage you to read these psalms today. I encourage you to think about the garden, about the suffering and obedience of our Savior. But most of all, I encourage you to draw closer to that Savior, because He has conquered death and is very much alive. Sunday has already come, friends, it came a very long time ago. Let us rejoice and be glad in the goodness of our God.

Photos by Robyn: Sculpture by Rick Wienecke; Olive tree from Gethsemane.

How do we escape the Justice-Bot?

Alright folks. If you haven’t seen the latest episode of Doctor Who, I’m probably going to spoil it for you. (Wait, don’t leave! I talk about things other than Doctor Who in this blog post too, I swear.)

Okay, so this last episode frustrated me. Here’s the basic conflict: This alien guy committed some pretty terrible crimes by experimenting on his own people and turning them into cyborg war machines to kill a bunch of other aliens. One of his cyborgs went rogue and turned into a justice/vengeance obsessed robot and hunted him across the universe to kill him. Surprise, surprise, the alien guy landed on earth, and now the justice-bot (that’s not what he’s called but that’s what I like to call him) has been waiting for weeks for the guy to come out and face him so he doesn’t have to kill any innocent humans to exact revenge. But now it’s taking too long, so he threatens to kill an entire town if they don’t deliver the bad guy over to him by high noon.

Here’s the conundrum: the bad guy’s done some pretty awesome things for this town since he arrived. He cured them of diseases, provided electricity, tried to protect them. The marshal stood up to the town and to the justice-bot for him and got himself killed. The Doctor doesn’t know what to do because he hates the bad guy for what he did, but he doesn’t want to pronounce the death penalty. The bad guy is willing to face the justice-bot, because he knows what he did and he doesn’t want to hurt anyone else, but even when he tries, his marshal friend takes the gunshot for him. Now the Doctor doesn’t want the innocent marshal’s death to be in vain.

As I watched this episode, I was trying (as the writer I am) to figure out a solution. What do you do when death is the only answer to exacting justice? I found myself actually getting a little excited about just how they were going to end this one.

…And then the bad alien guy goes and blows himself up. Because it was “the only way.” Because even though the Doctor had worked out a way for him to escape, he knew the justice-bot would just follow him to another planet, to another town, and they’d face the same conundrum again. So he decided to face his sins and take the punishment upon himself without having to make the cyborg murder another person.

Maybe that makes perfect sense to you, but it just depressed me. I thought they were going to do something different. I thought they were going to bring in some crazy, awesome solution. But there was no other solution. Death was the only way, even though the bad guy had repented, even though he had changed.

And this is the story we repeat to ourselves over and over.

In my seminar class on the problem of evil, we talk at great lengths about how, for some reason, human beings are born with this sense of fault, of imperfection which leads to sin which leads to guilt, and we don’t know where it comes from except for the fact that it has to do with being mortal… It’s all very depressing, and I don’t like being in it because we never get to the good parts about grace or redemption or original glory (and some would say we just created those good parts anyway). However, the textbook has spoken about this innate desire we have to punish the wrongdoing within us, even if it’s in the fact that we have someone else (like a lamb or Christ) suffer for us, we know that there needs to be justice. We are born with this need for justice.

And we write Doctor Who episodes about criminals who need to die for their sins, and our favorite character can search high and low for a way out, but in the end death is the only way for justice to be satisfied.

And yet there is something in me that resists that so fervently.
Can I just take a moment to praise God for His infinite grace?
Because justice is scary, and permanent, and unrelenting.
But God’s grace abounds.
He is the One who can be perfectly just and yet full of grace at the same time.

We know we need him. Our hearts must know, at least, because it comes out in our lives when we speak of things like our human imperfection, of our need for justice and restoration.

I need Him, and I just want to share that He’s here, that He loves you, and that He wants to cover you with His freedom and grace.

May you experience the power of His limitless grace today. <3

Permission to Kill

Lately, I’ve fallen in love with the book The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis. The tale follows a busload of humans traveling from Hell to Heaven, and includes many short stories about the “Hell” the people cling to which keeps them from embracing Heaven.

One such story involves a man and a lizard. You see, this man managed to get on the bus bound for Heaven, but he’s got this annoying red lizard on his shoulder that insisted on coming and whispers constantly in his ear. The man doesn’t like the lizard, he knows such a creature has no place up there in Heaven, but he just can’t seem to make it go away, so he decides to turn around and go back to Hell. Before he can get very far, though, an angel stops him, and asks him if he’d like for the angel to make the lizard be quiet. The man agrees, but soon the angel explains that the only way to do so is to kill the lizard, and the man starts to freak out.

He falters in doubt and fear, saying, “I mean, for the moment I was only thinking about silencing it because up here — well, it’s so damned embarrassing.” The angel insists that it’s the only way, and asks again if the man will let him kill the lizard. “Please– really — don’t bother,” the man says. “Look! It’s gone to sleep of its own accord. I’m sure it’ll be all right now. Thanks ever so much.”

The angel continues to offer this man complete and total freedom from his sin, but he’s too afraid to accept it: “Honestly, I don’t think there’s the slightest necessity for that. I’m sure I shall be able to keep it in order now. I think the gradual process would be far better than killing it.”

Foolish man! That is so like us, isn’t it? We ask God for help in a sin, and He says He’ll take care of it, but then we back out and say we can control it on our own, that we’ll handle it, keep it in order… When all He wants to do is take it out of our lives forever. Of course, the man says that sounds like a great idea, but he’d rather come back and do it later, he’s in no shape to handle such a thing now.

The key point in this little interaction between the man and the angel is that in order to free the man, the angel has to kill the lizard, and he must do so only with the man’s permission. He cannot kill the whispering lizard against the man’s will. But the man is too afraid, afraid that if the lizard dies, he will die too. He’s afraid because even the angel’s close proximity to him is burning him, hurting him.

“I never said it wouldn’t hurt you. I said it wouldn’t kill you,” the angel explains.

As the angel comes closer, the lizard whispers fervent lies into the man’s ear, promising to bring him only good things, pleasurable things, natural things such that the angel could never understand.

But the man has had enough. He’s afraid of dying, but he exclaims, “It would be better to be dead than to live with this creature,” and so he asks the angel to kill it.

The angel closes in, a scream of agony echoes through the Heavenly landscape, and the man collapses. But then he rises, a new and glowing Being, full of joy and brightness. The lizard is thrown away, broken and defeated, but then it starts to transform too, changing into a shining white stallion. The new Being jumps onto the horse, the thing that once controlled him, and rides off into the eternal sunrise.

If we give our unclean desires to God, if we let Him kill every inch of us that is not of Him, that has no place in His eternity, He will transform all of it into glory and majesty. Yes, it will hurt, but when we submit ourselves fully to death, we join in the splendor of resurrection.

As the man rides off in peace, Nature rejoices in song, saying: “Overcome us that, so overcome, we may be ourselves.”

God, I want to be overcome by You so that I can fully become who You made me to be. Take these sinful desires, take this lizard off my back. I give You permission to kill it. Please, kill it, destroy it, transform it, and lead me into new life. I don’t want to hold on to any part of Hell, but instead I want to leave it all behind, embracing every inch of Heaven that lies within my grasp.

Child, you’re forgiven and loved.

1 John 1:9 “If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”

In the words of Andrew Farley in The Naked Gospel:

This verse is an invitation to become a Christian. John is addressing nonbelievers who claimed to be without sin.

Did you notice that this verse declares they’d be purified from ALL UNRIGHTEOUSNESS? The phrase “all unrighteousness” is reminiscent of forgiveness passages elsewhere in the epistles. Here, John isn’t asking for a one-by-one tallying of our sins in order for Christians to stay forgiven and cleansed. That would be ludicrous, given the impossibility for any human to truly comply!

Think about it. You’ve already committed thousands of sins you’ve forgotten about. You can’t possibly remember them in order to confess them and become forgiven for them. That’s why Christians have to be purified from ALL unrighteousness – once and for all!

The contextualized interpretation of verse 9 may be new to those of us who have viewed the passage as a prescription for Christians who just committed an individual sin. First John 1:9 has been a “bar of soap” routine to stay cleansed and in fellowship with God.

What a tragedy! In adopting this view, we fail to acknowledge that ONLY BLOOD (NOT WORDS) brings forgiveness. We miss the fact that Jesus’ once-for-all blood sacrifice brought LIFELONG cleansing. So we dialogue with God to FEEL forgiven and cleansed. This feeling serves as our confirmation that God just forgave us. But some aren’t able to conjure up this feeling. And as a result, they end up doubting their forgiveness.

I have totally been there… unable to conjure up the feeling of being forgiven…

Farley goes on to talk about confession:

Let’s clarify an important point. The meaning of “confess” is “to say the same as” or “to agree.” Believers should agree with God on all accounts – not just about sins but about everything. Although we don’t confess our sins IN ORDER TO RECEIVE new portions of forgiveness and cleansing, we should still AGREE with God concerning the folly of sin. We’re His children, and it is only His ways that fulfill. We’re designed from the ground up to agree with Him, depend on him, and live from Him.

But it’s equally important to recognize that we don’t impel God or put Him in motion through our confession. He’s not waiting to dole out forgiveness and cleansing. WE don’t need to keep “short accounts” with God, since He has already destroyed the record book!

God has taken away our sins. He remembers them no more. As believers, our forgiveness and cleansing aren’t dependent on our memory, our confession, or our asking. Our forgiveness and cleansing are solely because of the finished work of Jesus Christ.

Let me take a moment to bask in that truth. Wow. Thank you, Jesus.

Now Farley addresses James 5:16.
“Therefore, confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.”

Confession to trusted friends and to God is healthy. It’s normal and natural to talk about your struggles with people who care about you. The indispensable truth to grasp, however, is that confession does NOT initiate cleansing in your life. We’ve already been cleansed “once for all” through the onetime blood sacrifice that needs no repeating.

Let’s be honest about our struggles, but let’s also be clear about what the cross accomplished. The Catholic goes to a priest, and the Protestant thinks he does better by appealing directly to god. But any system that doesn’t factor in once-for-all forgiveness is intrinsically flawed.

God doesn’t want us to think that human priests apportion forgiveness to us. Nor does he want us to envision His doling out forgiveness from heaven on a “first come, first serve” basis! Instead, He wants us to ascribe real meaning to Jesus’ declaration, “It is finished.”

Only then will we turn from sins for the right reason. Our motivation shouldn’t be to obtain forgiveness in return. We’re already forgiven and cleansed children of the living God. Our motivation should be the fulfillment that comes from truly being ourselves.

Wow.
In my life, forgiveness has been so polluted by obsessive compulsive disorder and this compulsive need for the “bar of soap,” to ask for forgiveness over and over until I feel cleansed…
That is NOT the Gospel.
The Gospel declares sin is finished. It is done, I’m forgiven once and for all. Jesus died ONCE for ALL sin, He doesn’t die daily.
Yes, I still sin, and when I do, I am not acting in the way God intended me to, I am not living from the new creation. So, I need to agree with God that yes, I did that, and it was foolish, and I need Your help to overcome it. But I also need to thank God for forgiving me for it, and cleansing me once and for all. I have already been forgiven. I don’t need to ask a certain way or a certain amount of times… Thank you, Jesus.
ONCE AND FOR ALL.

When I counted up my demons…

I have been told the best advice to aspiring writers is to “keep writing, keep writing!” Not that I would necessarily “claim” to be an “aspiring writer,” but I do like to write… So, here is attempt number two at my “keep writing” plan:

Dear blog,

So, I’ve had some difficult issues to deal with lately, and I want to put it this way…

You see, we all have demons. (We count them up and hope that everything’s not lost.)

Sometimes, one or more of our demons can hide away for a little while, and so we think we’re okay:  It’s alright, I haven’t seen that particular demon for a while now, so I’d rather just push him out of my mind and move on with my life.  Everything’s good, everything’s fine.

Usually, this is when he likes to rear his ugly little head again. He’ll pop on by, just to say hello, and remind us that we are still human and fragile, prone to making mistakes and highly susceptible to temptation.

Now, we have a choice:  Do we push the demon out of our mind again and keep telling ourselves that we can get through this, it’s an out of sight, out of mind kind of deal … Or do we face the demon head on, grab him by the horns (if your demon has horns) and throw him out of our life?

Herein lies the problem. If you try to keep living your life free of the demon without ever actually facing him, you will carry around this weight, this shadow. And while things may be sunny at the moment, the shadow – that you’ve probably never actualy told anyone about – can always creep back in.

But you could live with that. Why?

Because your second option is far scarier. You see, in order to face the demon, you must look into his eyes, and, chances are, you are going to see yourself, and that terrifies you.

This is especially difficult for those who don’t like confrontation (like me).

It’s not that you’re afraid of hurting the demon’s feelings. I mean, let’s be honest, you would love to see him destroyed and done for. But the thing is, you’d much rather forget you ever had a problem, than go about trying to fix it. Because fixing it requires internal research, digging deep, and remembering that you were the one feeding that pesky demon all along. It is not the demon you have to confront, it is yourself. You see, in order for something to be fixed, it first needs to be broken.

And being broken is much MUCH scarier than having to shoo away a pesky little demon every now and then.

And yet, we are called to be broken. For it is only in our brokenness that the Ultimate Restorer can overwhelm us with His power of love and redemption. “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” -Psalm 51:17

When we are broken, He is close, and He will not reject us. The Lord will always love us, restore us, and make us new.

And yet, sometimes I think we would still rather just burry that little demon deep in the recesses of our minds where no one will ever find him and just go about our business. Of course, that probably won’t work too well because other people come ready with shovels. They will dig, and dig deep, until they find that demon, bring him back to the surface, and leave you covered in dirt.

And now how are you supposed to feel?

Like dirt, you would think. Obviously.

But the thing is, those demon-miners were probably doing you a favor.

But you still have a choice:  You can reach for the shovel and bury your demon again. Maybe you have more than one. Bury them all so deep, deeper than before, and maybe, just maybe, they won’t resurface, at least not any time soon.

Or,

You can grab that demon by the horns, look him straight in the eyes, and allow yourself to be broken. And after that, let go, and lift your eyes to the One who restores.

It’s going to be scary, and it’s going to be difficult, but in the end you will be so much better for it. …Right?