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.

Possession Does Not Equal Enjoyment

Recently, I spend some time with my brother, sister-in-law, and their fresh new baby – my nephew. I have had the pleasure of getting to see them three times in the last 7 months of my nephew’s life. There is something about getting around a ridiculously cute baby that can give a women baby brain! However, during my recent visits, the Father has been delivering a grace into my heart to love my nephew, and rejoice with my brother and sister’s gift, without coveting that gift. Just like appreciating a sunset for itself, a beautiful flower for itself, a wonderful piece of art – Possession does not equal enjoyment, and ownership does not equal satisfaction. We can enjoy something, no matter whose it is, for what it is.

Paul says, “So let no one boast in men. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.” (1 Cor. 3:21-23) Sit in that for a moment, ‘all things are yours.’ Now, clearly it would be of poor taste to walk into your neighbor’s home and say, “I like that lamp, scripture says that all things are mine, so I think I will take it.” As we compare scripture with scripture, we find that we are also told “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.” (Exodus 20:17 – italics added) So what do these mean when taken together?

In the context of 1 Corinthians 3, Christians were boasting in men. They were saying that some were of “Team Paul” and others “Team Apollos.” However, Paul flips this around and says that all things: Paul or Apollos, Cephas or the world, life or death, even the present or the future—all are yours. But it doesn’t stop there – AND you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s. In other words, all these things are yours, but all these things (people, the world, things present or future) do not terminate on you, but on Christ and God, the Father – “For from him [Christ] and through him and to him are all things.” (Rom. 11:36)

Therefore, taken together, we are not to covet as if to own what is another’s, or to boast in men as if we belong to one camp or another, but all things are ours in enjoyment, and gifts of grace, from the Gift Producer and Giver – Jesus. We begin to internalize, by grace, that possession does not equal enjoyment, and ownership does not equal satisfaction. Scriptures that tell us to weep with those who weep, and rejoice with those who rejoice take on a deeper meaning. We will not simply rejoice because some piece of good new is ours, or something is ours, but simply because we saw it, or heard it, enjoyed it, and recognized whatever/whoever it is, is a glorious finite reflection of a good and perfect God.

Truth: “For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom. 8:38-39)

The Incarnational Christ of Christmas

Today I was talking with a friend who is currently without a home. He told me that he is never comfortable going to meet people in unfamiliar places. He continued to say that he is much more comfortable with people coming to places that he frequents and into places that he is comfortable with. I can relate, I would much rather spend the night at home, or in familiar territory, than to strike out into a place that is unfamiliar. I am more comfortable when people come into my space.

Reflecting on this, I was moved afresh in celebration of Christmas this week of what Jesus has done for me. He knows that I am comfortable in my sin. He knows that I wouldn’t want Him or desire Him apart from His pursuit of me. He left the comfort of His home to come into my space.

As I was talking with my friend, another group came up and began talking with us. One of the men asked my friend, “have you been good?”. That is where we can all go, and that is what the naughty-or-nice-checking-his-list-twice Christmas has taught us. That is what every religion tries to teach us: “Be good.” But Christ came, knowing that we can’t be good, all the time, in every way. He came to place His Spirit in us, to place His righteousness in us. He came into our space. He is knocking at the door of our hearts, asking to be let in (Rev. 3:20).

That is Christmas. The incarnational Christ, coming to earth, because God so loved the world (John 3:16). I grew up hearing about a different Jesus. I heard the decree to “be good”. However, the command to “be good” is like putting the cart before the horse. In my twenties, I met others who came into my space, they told me about a Jesus that didn’t want my good works, but a Jesus that wanted to do a good work in me. A Jesus who wanted to breath true life in me, to live life as it is truly meant to be lived. Jesus pulls the cart…Jesus made the cart!

This Christmas don’t settle for the naughty-or-nice-checking-his-list-twice Jesus. This Christmas celebrate Jesus – God who took on the form of man (Phil. 2:5-11). Celebrate and give thanks to God who came into our space. Ladies, gospel yourselves this Christmas – Jesus came into the world so that we could flourish in life now, and so that we would even have the desire for a better, lasting home, as well as the way to get there (John 14:6-7). This Christmas, and everyday, Christ’s Spirit in us now compels us to go out into the world. His Spirit in us compels us out of our place of comfort (just as He did for us) into other people’s spaces, as ambassadors of this gospel.

Truth: “Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.’” ~ John 14:6-7

Life is a vapor

But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God. (Acts 20:24)

I had adopted this as my “life verse” in my final year at Bible College. One, I thought it seemed hard core, and two, I really meant it. God’s love had so radically grabbed my heart, that I knew this life didn’t matter as much in length as it does in content. I didn’t know what would happen roughly four years later.

This time last year I went into the hospital with extreme hip pain that had then spread to my whole body. I could barely walk or dress myself. I kept saying I would go to the hospital in another day or two, really praying and hoping things would get better. My friends intervened and took me to the hospital. The last thing I remember until they induced me into a coma for about a week was eating a hummas plate with my friend in the hospital bed.

All of my vital organs started to shut down. What none of us knew at that point was that I had blood poisoning. I remember suffocating, then thinking I had died. Back in the hospital room they had put me on a breathing tube and induced me in a coma. I won’t go into all of the dreams, but I dreamt I was no longer in this world. Much of my dreams were affected by what my body was experiencing in that hospital room. I do remember thinking that all of my dreams were not really heaven because I kept saying, “There will be no more pain and no more tears, and it will be all about Jesus”, and my succession of dreams were not these things.

When I awoke and began to realize that I indeed was still alive, it took me a while to sort through those dreams.

I wanted to come through this experience with all new goals. I would live my life to the fullest! Health began to return, I began to walk again, to gain back the 30 pounds that I had lost, the memories of the event began to fade like a bad dream – one I learned a lot from and grew in my relationship with God in, but hard to say the least.

I am reminded of the simple truth in those dreams – it is all about Jesus and the gospel. It is about loving God with your whole heart, soul mind and strength, and loving your neighbor as yourself. (Matt. 22:37-40) It is about turning the other cheek, because life is too short, and sometimes shorter than we think. It is about reconciling with one another along the way, and never going to bed angry. Life is tough enough without reciprocation and perpetuating hurt. Jesus came so that he could share in our suffering and take on our hurt. (Isaiah 53:4-5) Life is about Jesus, what He has done, and how He has called us to love Him and one another.

Christian sister, gospel yourself, life is too short and God’s love too precious to ignore and too contagious not to share. We need Jesus through the gospel, and we need one another. Share the good news in word and deed with a coworker, family member or friend, tell your husband and babies (where applicable) that you love them, and show them that you do. Tell a friend how much you appreciate them, give love, because that is what Jesus gave to you to the point of giving His life. Jesus did not live a long life on earth as a human, but He made a way for those who have faith in Him to live eternally to know the Father and the Son. (John 17:3)

Truth: The Sermon on the Mount – Matt. 5-7 (This is a longer one but if you have not read it in awhile, now is as good a time as any)

With Whom Does Your Identity Abide?

Like so many women, I can let “my victories” make me think that I am awesome, and I can let “my failures” make me think that I am unworthy. It is a constant yo-yo from day to day. Will today bring more “victories” than “failures,” or vice versa? But it is God’s joyful intention that we, more and more through his grace, remain in the center of the gospel – the good news that Jesus has granted us salvation and freedom through his perfect life, dying in our place on the cross, conquering Satan, sin and death, and restoring us in right relationship with the Father, our Father.

And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” (1 Cor. 1:30-31)

We are all prone to connect our victories as well as our failures to our identity, but it is by the grace and mercy of God that for those who believe in Jesus Christ, their identity is found in Him and nothing else.

Christian sister, if you find this week that you are feeling down from actions or words you said, take the time to repent and believe that Jesus is your identity, your “failures” are not your identity. God can use those “failures” to show His greater grace and mercy in transforming our minds through them. (Rom. 12:1-2) If you are having a week where you are boasting in “your victories,” realize that there is nothing that you have that you did not first receive. (1 Cor. 4:7) If you are having a week where you are being raised on a pedestal of praise, or you are under the weight of criticism, these as well are not where your identity abides. Through the gospel we settle into what Timothy Keller calls “The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness” (a book I would highly recommend if this is an area you struggle in as well). This “self-forgetfulness” connects neither sin nor accomplishments to identity. Sin should be addressed and accomplishments celebrated, but neither defines who you are. Should you believe in the truth below, you are a daughter of God, and that is your identity. Meditate on the gospel daily so that you remember who you are and with Whom your identity abides. The gospel will be your anchor when victories and failures try to muddy the water of who you are.

Truth: “...if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Rom. 10:9)