Down & Through

I recently attended a conference in Washington, DC in the midst of a scorching summer. In stark contrast to the outside temperature, the conference center was frigid. In order to warm up a bit between sessions, I either had to descend three escalators to reach the balmy outdoors, or I could sit in a windowed corner of the conference center on the third floor where the sun shone in.

During one of the breaks, as I am sitting enjoying the relative warmth in the windowed corner of the third floor, I hear a chirping overhead. I look up to see a small bird trapped inside the building. The bird, with futility, was trying to get outside by flying against the windows. Every minute or so the bird would rest on a perch, then seek again to exit through the glass. If one window pane did not work, the bird would fly across to the next. I so badly wanted to help the bird, but these windows were not the kind that open up. I also realized that this bird would never trust me enough to guide it down into the belly of the building towards the doors that lead outside. To look towards the windows, the bird could see the outside, right there! To look towards the escalators it was dark. How could it ever make sense to this bird that down was indeed the way out?

It hit me as I thought about all of the ways that I could try to free this bird, that I often react in the same way as this bird. How often is the way out, actually down? But how often do I, with futility, try to fly against a closed window pane?

There is a lot of language in Scripture that talks about the need to go low, to go further down and in before we can go up and out:

  • No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. (John 3:13)
  • Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. (John 12:24)
  • Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted. (Matt. 23:12)

Jesus had to come down from the Father to make a way for us to go up; the grain must first die in the dark underground soil before it can burst forth into the light; one must first be humbled in order to be exalted. Is there anything going on in your life right now where the liberated way is actually down and through something first? – a sickness, a hard conversation, a deeper examination of privilege and race in our communities, lament over the brokenness in our world, the process and journey of just peacemaking in the midst of conflicts…

I find I am often mistaken about a clean, linear way forward. May we not be confused and disheartened like the bird when sometimes the way forward is down and through.

Words Fail Me

I think that we are all a bit shell-shocked from how the world seems to have shifted again in the last year. Like the frog that is enjoying its warm bath, the fact that the water is now boiling seems to have come as a surprise. However, the anger, racism, divisions, and mudslinging have been here all along; I believe many have just been comfortable with its levels until it went up another notch.

Words fail me these days, but I pray actions do not. Dietrich Bonhoeffer observed that “Judgement passed on another man always presupposes disunion with him; it is an obstacle to action. But the good of which Jesus speaks consists entirely in action and not judgement. Judging the other man always means a break in one’s activity. The man who judges never acts himself; or, alternatively, whatever action of his own he may be able to show, and sometimes indeed there is plenty of it, is never more than judgement, condemnation, reproaches and accusations against another man” (Ethics, 1955) These are the motives and the fruit of the Pharisee. I am often guilty of this, and I know that I am not alone.

These days, I have returned to the Sermon on the Mount, where I hope to be a listener again. I pray to be an ever-changing person; sanctified by grace, as I gaze, by faith, into the never changing face of Jesus Christ – as His heart overtakes mine until our hearts are so intertwined that I can breathe “the Beloved is mine, and I am His” (Song of Songs 2:16; 6:3).

In this place, I see that:
He pursued, when I was running away.
He has been gentle, when I was stubborn.
He has spoken, when I was silent.
He acted, when I was passive.
He loved me, when I was unlovable.
He reconciled me to the Father, and my heart began to beat for the first time.

Within the Sermon on the Mount, I have pressed into Lord’s Prayer. I often do not know how to pray. Jesus knew our proclivity to pray long prayers. Ironically, we have made this prayer into a series of prayers, forgetting the preface where Jesus says, “And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him. [Therefore] Pray like this:

Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth, as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
and forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.” (Matthew 6:7-13 Emphasis & Brackets added)

Prayers will become actions, and actions will become prayers. But there are pieces of this world that will continue broken and disappointed until all things have finally been reconciled to the Father, by making peace through the blood of His cross (Colossians 1:20).

Practical Theology

I have a love affair with education and learning new things. This has not always the case. I barely graduated high school. The day of graduation, I bent the truth (or in some cases completely disregarded it) with several of my teachers to explain (and hopefully pardon) my various absences. Somehow, the appropriate number of absences were excused. This gave me enough leverage to graduate hours later.

It wasn’t until I was 25 in Bible College that the Lord enlivened my mind to love to learn new things and to apply myself to study, in particular to study the Bible. However, I have been learning over the years that scholastic achievements are not effective in and of themselves. Without a practical outworking in my life and other’s lives, knowledge stays on a dusty shelf. If this is the case, knowledge remains a wall full of books – they look pretty, but they are of little practical use.

One of my early lessons in practical theology occurred in the jungles of Ecuador in 2008…

The sheets felt foreign to my skin, and the bed was firm and unforgiving. As I lay in the darkness of night, I tried to adjust my eyes to pick up objects around this unfamiliar room. Itchiness radiated from the tip of my toe, crept up my calf and threatened to molest my knee. I didn’t have any anti-itch cream so I reached for the same miracle tincture that had worked the night before – toothpaste. Whether it was the menthol or some other element of the toothpaste, it helped to abate the incessant itching enough for me to fall into a half sleep.

At one point I woke up to the sound of something scurrying into the room to find a place directly under the bed in which I lay. After a moment of silence, as if this enigma was trying to go unnoticed again, I heard a crunching sound that reminded me of potato chips being eaten. Rallying my courage to push past my bent toward self-preservation in the face of the unknown, I reached for the flashlight near the head of my pillow.

Slowly, I shimmied halfway out of the mosquito net to shine the light underneath the bed. Caught in the spotlight was a cat gnawing away at what I believed was a bat. Satisfied that my life was in no real danger, I secured myself in the sanctuary of the mosquito net and tried to chase illusive sleep, hoping that the late night snack going on under my bed wouldn’t keep me up too long.

Morning revealed what darkness had concealed – a little village called Babahoyo in the El Oriente of Ecuador. I was a guest in the home of my new friend, L, and her family. Their home stood fifteen feet off the ground on sturdy wood stilts. The elevation served to keep us safe from the sundry creatures roaming the ground. Although, clearly, our elevated position didn’t guard against late night visits from the house cat.

The home had openings on all four sides. As one walks up the stairs and surveys the floorplan, one can look straight through the living room to the forest walls on the other side. Many people spend thousands of dollars for an aesthetically pleasing dining room, but L’s unassuming home had an unmatched view looking out over the garden of plantains, yucca and exotic flowers.

I had never seen flowers quite like these before. It was as if God had decided to have a bit of fun. The large, odd-shaped petals were reaching away from one another. What started with a painted swash of yellow was finished off by a flick of the brush, spraying electric orange across each corolla. Each splash of color, haphazardly perfect, seems to reflect how I often view my own life – often messy, yet beautiful and divinely orchestrated.

I had met L in the classroom of IBCI. In Spanish, the acronym stands for Instituto Biblico Capacitation Internacional. In English, the school is referred to as International Bible Cassette Institute. L was involved in a three year program at the end of which she would be equipped with a thorough understanding of biblical scripture. Every month she would ride the bus for five hours from her village of Babahoyo to participate in classes in Tena, a bustling city in the eastern jungles of Ecuador.

L was a fiery woman, not afraid to lock eyes and share her opinion. She had a passion for the Bible and loved telling everyone about the change Jesus had brought about in her life.

Each day I stayed with L, she and I would sit at her table discussing the Bible. She would talk to me in Spanish as if teaching a class. I prided myself in my knowledge and handling of the scriptures, nevertheless, now I received her pitiful stares when I could not return meaningful soliloquies in Spanish. It wasn’t a lack of knowledge, I assured myself. The problem was that I couldn’t completely understand what she was saying in Spanish, nor return a meaningful response in the same. She would ask me a question (only half of which I understood) and expect me to pour out a sermon. I could feel my positive attitude heading on a precipitous decline during these sessions. Bouts of pride and wounded ego were rearing their ugly head in my heart. It wasn’t the first time, and it wouldn’t be the last.

In retrospect I see the lesson for me was very practical. It was not about my knowledge of the Bible, but rather the posture of my spirit and my attitude that was being refined. As I look back over those times with L, I am sad that I missed the point. It is one thing to have mental prowess in a great many things, but knowledge that simply remains in the recesses of the mind does not blossom into practical application. The flowers in my garden needed pruning.

My descent into humility continued. One day I was sitting in the open dining room reading a book written by my friend Sandi called, Groovy Girls in Today’s World, while L was outside doing laundry. I had offered to help with the laundry, but I was turned down. My pride still being incrementally washed away, I had the distinct impression she didn’t trust me to do it right.

I came upon a part in the book that described different girls as cheerleaders and prom queens, and others as wallflowers. The cheerleader/prom queens are the beautiful, talented people that get all of the attention and the wallflowers are the others, the dregs of high school society who find themselves on the sidelines. I definitely was no cheerleader in high school, but in the years since, I had developed the attitude of a cheerleader in life.

As I was turning these things over in my mind and gazing out over the landscape, I focused my attention on two chickens in L’s yard. One of them was a beautiful, plump chicken with robust feathers, radiant yellow legs and beak, and a bright red wattle. The other was a scrawny, sickly looking chicken with patches of missing feathers all over. My hyperactive imagination kicked into full gear about a chicken yard scenario with the healthy looking chicken as the Prom Queen and the other one was, well, the Wallflower. This melodrama faded and I dove back into reading. No more than ten minutes later, L called to me. I went to the stairs and noticed that she was triumphantly holding high a dead chicken by its feet. She had killed the Prom Queen!

That day L taught me how to clean a chicken. We removed all of the once beautiful feathers, now crumpled and smeared with dirt, with a pot of boiling water poured over the body. This process loosened the feathers, which easily came off with a tug. Like tights, we stripped back the yellow skin covering the legs. We cut off the beak. I then proceeded to cut off the red wattle. All that had once been beautiful about the Prom Queen was no more. For the next several days we had chicken for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Every now and again I would glance out over the side of the house and see the Wallflower happily searching for her next meal.

After I left L’s home on my seven hour trip back to the capital city of Quito, I turned these things over in my mind. I thought I had attained some modicum of biblical knowledge up to that point, but my thoughts and my actions were still being transformed by that knowledge. I knew how many books there are in the Bible, but my heart was in a continual process to reflect those books. The pomp and beauty of the Prom Queen chicken did not extend or enrich life. All that was outwardly beautiful about the Prom Queen was easily stripped away and forgotten. Books on a shelf, perfect and ordered, do not enrich life – lives to be read like a book do.

There are times when thinking on my shortcomings that I feel a wreck for where I am and where I would like to be, but the flowers of L’s garden, appearing imperfect in symmetry, nevertheless, are an intricate work of art. Messy, but beautiful. I will be in this process of growth until I see my Lord face to face. Among other means of change, knowledge gained and put into use will continue to be a humbling tool, chipping away at this vessel, wielded by the Master Craftsman’s hands.

So What’s It Good For?

As expressed in the last post: “For those that receive Jesus and believe in His name, He gave the right to become the children of God (John 1:12). That work is finished. You are a daughter of God in Jesus Christ. That seed has been planted in the field. But there is a whole lot of growth until that seed becomes a tree.”

Prior to becoming a Christian there are hardships and struggles. Those struggles don’t just go away once we do believe in Jesus. There is a whole interim period between justification – when Christ’s righteousness is credited to us as we believe in Him (Romans 3:26; 5:1), and the glorification – when this perishable body must put on the imperishable and spiritual body (1 Corinthians 15:12-58). This interim period of growth, so to speak, is what many call sanctification. Wayne Gruden, an evangelical theologian, seminary professor and author, says in his book Bible Doctrine, that “in Acts 20:32, Paul refers to Christians as ‘all those who are sanctified’ (using a perfect participle that expresses both a completed past action [they were sanctified] and a continuing result [they continue to experience the influence of that past action]).” How can this process of sanctification sometimes look a little messy, and what’s it good for?

“Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” James 1:2-4

First observation here is that James (the half-brother of Jesus) is talking to his “brothers”. He is talking to fellow Christians. Specifically, it would seem that he is talking about Jewish-Christians who were dispersed/scattered after Stephen’s persecution (James 1:1; Acts 11:19). But there is a further word for us today. Carson and Moo, authors of An Introduction to the New Testament state that “the word also had a metaphorical sense, characterizing Christians generally as those who live away from their true heavenly home (1 Peter 1:1).” As Christians, we are not yet home. We will come up against various trials.

We will experience trials of many kinds – health problems, gossip, grieving over loved ones stuck in sin, abuse, the death of loved ones, as well as our own sin and negative thoughts, emotions and actions. How we respond to the trials of life reveal areas God is continuing to make us into His likeness. This is actually a very useful guage when you think about it.

Are you “counting it all joy when you meet trials of various kinds”? If the answer is no, I don’t blame you! I don’t always count it joy in the middle of the struggles of this life. But this is a useful observation. The moment we face these trials with anger, frustration, jealousy, etc., it is an opportunity. As we are aware of our reaction, we can ask God to transform our perspective into His perspective. Fill-in-the-blank situation is an opportunity to produce steadfastness, and all the other fruit of the spirit, in the place of our negative emotions. When steadfastness has had its full effect, God’s word tells us that we will be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. Does this reality seem like a very distant reality. It certainly does to me. But it is a promise. God will complete that which He has begun in you.

Christian sister, gospel yourself. We all face trials of various kinds. We all struggle, but God has a greater promise. Look at the struggle simply for what it is – an opportunity to reveal a possible distortion in our beliefs about who God is, who He is for us, and who we are in Him. He will use every one of these situations to point to the greater reality – that He is still fashioning us into His image, and that this is not our permanent home. Ask God to make you aware of these moments when you get frustrated, angry, resentful, etc., in the midst of the trials of many kinds. Then ask Him to change your perspective to see His truth – He is God, He is in control, He is for you, He loves you because He loves you, You are His child, and He will finish the good work that He has begun in you.

Truth: “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” Philippians 1:6