our striving would be losing

If there ever was someone who deserved the distinction of being absolute, that someone is Jesus. He declared himself the absolute, only way to enter into the kingdom of heaven (John 14:6). In this question, there is no grey area – not a single drop of ying yang to dilute what He has spelled out explicitly in His word.

Christ is salvation for those who believe, but salvation is bigger than we think. It is not just a salvation from judgment. Christ’s salvation is also salvation into righteousness. In the same moment that He freed us from the bloody (literal) cycle of sacrifices, He freed us into obedience by way of His righteousness. We are no longer ruled by the destruction of our secret hearts and the destruction of our sinful humanity. We are not ruled by the darkness that seems to rule the world.

“For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21)

We are freed from judgment by Christ’s atoning sacrifice and freed into obedience by Christ’s imputing righteousness.

What we believe about Jesus Christ matters because our lives could never stand up to God’s righteous judgment. My sin goes before me and follows close behind. The good I want to do gets muddled up in my own schemes and I am daily reminded of my sin that leads to death. I am weak against greed and pride and lust and fear and faithlessness. There is not a day I could stand upright in the face of God’s righteous judgment.

But God, being rich in mercy called His children before the foundations of the world into freedom from the judgment that is due our dead bones.

I need for Christ to offer a salvation that is more than just a courtroom scene where He takes my guilty sentence. I need for Him to be the justice I act and the mercy I show and the love I share. I need for Him to be the righteousness that roots out my fear and greed and lust and pride and I need Him as replacement. I need for Christ to be who God sees when I stand before the throne of judgment. AND HE IS, dear friends!

What we believe about Jesus Christ matters because His sacrifice both atones for our sin (receiving the judgment we are due) AND imputes our righteousness (replacing ours with the perfect life Christ lived).

He is the perfect heart condition when I try to muster compassion. He is the perfect generosity when I scrounge for change. He is the perfect host when I frenzy about with overlapping plans. He is the perfect listener, counselor, and encourager when I am trying very hard and very imperfectly to be all those things.

Yesterday, I sang “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” with a group of strangers in a beautiful church near Union Square. This second verse really tore apart my spirit.

Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing;
Were not the right Man on our side, the Man of God’s own choosing:
Dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus, it is He;
Lord Sabaoth, His Name, from age to age the same,
And He must win the battle.

I do a lot of striving – a lot of confiding in my own strength – and none of it gets me closer to a better salvation. Absolutely not one single attempt (or many) at righteousness will be the reason Christ invites or denies me into His kingdom. Because there is only one right Man, a Man of God’s own choosing, who has the power and perfection to be condemned in my guilty place so that I can become the righteousness of God. Salvation doesn’t get any better than that.

No matter how many hungry folks we feed or naked people we clothe or strangers we invite in, we would never do it perfectly and we would never do it enough. I would never do righteousness enough and (if I could be so bold) you wouldn’t either. We are always striving and our striving is always losing, but God made a way for us to be free of judgment and freed to righteousness. And that way is Jesus.

What we believe about Him is the most pressing, most prominent, most permanent thing today. He makes perfect all our imperfect attempts because He gave us His righteousness. We are freed from striving for perfection and freed from losing at that game. We are freed into obedience because salvation doesn’t depend on our righteous performance. Salvation depends on the cross and Christ performed that perfectly… so that we could enter into His joy and invite others to the banquet table to meet the Man of God’s own choosing.

As I click at my keyboard, wet and sloppy tears are tracking through the blush on my cheeks. Everything is snot-messy because salvation will always be a mystery. I don’t understand why I get to know Christ. I don’t understand why my sin does not banish me forever from His presence. I don’t understand why I never have a better response. I don’t understand why my daily song doesn’t sound like worship. I don’t understand why my heart can be so resistant to miracles.

Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.

For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.

But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. 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 Corinthians 1:20-31 ESV)

looking for a pilot

“To lament is to be utterly honest before a God whom our faith tells us we can trust.” from Journey to the Cross, lent devotional

When I am utterly honest, my lamenting needs trustworthy ears. If I am going to tell true words – even if they are scary or joyful or heavy or childlike – I need to tell them to the most trustworthy sort. And this is my journey through Lent, toward the throne of grace with confidence to lay down the burdens Christ wants to bear. This week the theme is lament.

I believe He is trustworthy, so I can be honest. I can and should lament the stretching divide my honesty reveals – all the ways I am an imperfect human. But I believe He is trustworthy, so I can be honest.

I can hear myself giving encouragement about honesty to close friends, “If you are truly honest, though your sadness will be great, your gladness will be greater.”

I still think that’s true. We should never sugarcoat struggle or sorrow or sin. We should not try to “get by” with whitewashed smiles and mustered courage. We should be honest about brokenness and shortcomings and tired bones.

We should be honest because He is trustworthy and ready to hear the deepest laments of our souls. If you’re like me, the lamenting process will make you want to follow someone – it will make you desperate to be swept up into someone else’s plan, someone whose plan doesn’t muck up or peter out or fade to gray.

Lamenting my own depravity during Lent is like opening my eyes to find how far I’ve foolishly paddled out to sea in my little rowboat. And it makes me look for a pilot.

near to Jesus

Somewhere in the middle of our discussion on Matthew 24:15-28 last night, I realized how different it feels to be near to Jesus in Lent.

In Epiphany, I was jostling with the crowds to get nearer the miracle. I was standing shoulder to shoulder with the disciples, trying to decipher the beauty and mystery of the God man. In Epiphany, I wanted to be near when Jesus touched lepers and saved harlots and spoke beauty and explained Truth. I wanted to be near Him like I wanted to be near beauty and like a magnet He pulled my soul closer.

In Lent, being near Jesus feels different because it means walking with Him to death.

He is no less beautiful or miraculous or True, but it feels somber to be beside Him as we go. I know it is for me that we’re on this journey – for my sin and hard heartedness that He has to set his eyes like flint on Jerusalem.

But I still want to be next to Him and I only want to be next to Him.

That is the repeat phrase I heard myself say after we finished prayers and I started off toward home last night. All those street preachers are right, at least partially: there is an end to this world and it is serious business. And in the end, I want to be found next to Christ – tucked under His provision and snuggled right up to His beauty when all that is somber thunders down.

If Christ is the most beautiful thing when the world folds in on its own desires, then He is definitely the most beautiful thing about this Wednesday morning.

honesty about sin means honesty about salvation

I read this gem in my Lent devotional this morning, from philosopher Søren Aabye Kierkegaard:

“Sin is the despairing refusal to find your deepest identity in your relationship and service to God. Sin is seeking to become oneself, to get an identity, apart from God.”

I don’t like thinking about my sin, even though it seems I’m always aware of it and always fighting shame against it. But it is a private shame, one I push beneath workflow and to the corners of social plans. I don’t like that I stumble and fail and forget lessons I learned the hard way. I don’t like that I require crazy amounts of patience from God, as He reteaches my heart to submit and love and serve and obey.

But, when I finally speak my sin into the light I realize how much energy I spent keeping it in the dark. Not that my efforts to hide selfishness and pride can keep anything from my Maker (and, of course I know that), but shame is a great and sly motivator.

When I confess my sin, I distance myself from any identity associated with rebellion and lean on the identity of the One who saves. But this relief only comes by way of honest confession.

So many times, I will kneel in church or pause for prayer and search my mind for something to confess. Satan somehow clears all the sin I have been shamefully hiding and replaces that elephant space in my mind with silent whiteness. My thoughts don’t even wander, there is just nothing there at all. Later, of course, the sins creep out from the corners to remind me that I am unworthy.

My heart needs confession (honesty about my sin) because my heart desperately needs forgiveness (honesty about salvation).

There is just no way around it, but there is also no greater glory to be found. God welcomes our confession and exchanges us a crown. He covers us in His grace and grants us inexplicable joy.

He leads us like a shepherd and chases us when we stray. What a beautiful friend we have in Jesus, friends – that He would chase down a forgetful and frightened heart to offer perfect freedom from shame.

because we have song, they said

The birds sang all over my coffee this morning, through the open window by the fire escape. I wish I knew their song. It seems like creation doesn’t hold back or get nervous or feel awkward about its praise.

It’s just the song inside and the only way is out.

The sunrise and the starlight and the sparrows under God’s watchful eye, all just singing out the songs buried inside. If I imagined myself into conversation with the birds outside my window and I asked them why they sang, I wonder what they would say. I wonder if they would think me silly and simple minded when they reply,

“…because we have song.”

This is the only option, but it is also the best and I love that the birds know that, and the mountains know that, and the life inside dead tree branches know that. Creation sings without shame or fear, but not to get glory.

Creation sings because the Creator gave them a song. And when creation sings, the songmaker is glorified.

I have a song inside, between doubts and delights and deserts. But the song is not for me. The singing is not so I can hear my own voice, but because I have a song. This, so that God would be glorified and others would see that I am also a part of the Spring chorus of sunlight and starlight and sparrows letting loose melodies into the sky.

Happy Sabbath day, friends.

all the rightness I am not

The ash on his thumb was black and wet and when he rubbed it across my forehead I really did feel like I came from dust. The priest’s words, “From dust you came and from dust you shall return” felt like a confirmation of something I try to forget on the regular.

I was working late Ash Wednesday night, so I went with a coworker to the noon service at the local Catholic church. She knew all the right hand motions, so I just followed close behind. No one seemed to think it was weird to have a blonde-haired, non-Catholic stranger visiting their bilingual service.

And so the Lent season began.
Now, here we are in the middle and I am tempted to rush these 40 days.

If I am honest, I feel ripe for a celebration and that doesn’t fit with this somber, Lenten attitude. I crammed introspection into commutes leading up to Wednesday because I didn’t want to be hasty or thoughtless about this season. I fought for brain space between subway rappers and social media distractions because I wanted to be the right kind of prepared.

I don’t know if I accomplished all the necessary Lent preparations. I had some conversations, made some pancakes, heard some sermons, and sang some songs. But then that priest told me I was dust and I knew he was right.

And I knew I could never be the right kind of prepared, at least I don’t think so. God is just calling me to say “Yes” to all His rightness. My heart looks like my apartment right now – boxes and disorder and confusion – but I don’t need to get right in these 40 days or in preparation for them.

I need to believe Christ is all the rightness I am not.

I need to follow Christ into the desert, to fast from distractions and feast on the Word, because He is all the rightness I am not. He is all the order I cannot muster and all the beauty I cannot duplicate.

I was truly unprepared in every way for these Lent feelings. I am the wet, black ash smeared across my forehead and there is nothing I can do to get more right. But God, in His grace is all the rightness I am not. He makes a way for me to feast as I fast. He makes a way for the lowly and the weak to praise His name.

Whoa. whoa. whoa.

I can stretch into that kind of praise, with a heart that looks like a hurricane and a house that looks haphazard. I can sing this song with a full heart and know that the God who formed me from dust hears my humble song!

the message of presence is not worn out

Every week of Epiphany season, I need to hear that Jesus is present – inside today and inside me and inside sunshine, storms, and celebrations. I need to believe He is present.

But belief is tricky.

Our “Yes, Lord” gets tangled up with our “Why, Lord” in a mess of circumstances. Even if life has leveled out and we feel good about our daily routine, career status, and financial situation – even if our questions and doubts are less about hardships and more about boredom or purpose.

Belief is slippery when things are going “well” and when things are not.

In whatever circumstance we find ourselves balancing our “Yes, Lord” and our “Why, Lord” – we will always have to answer the question of belief. Do we believe Jesus is present in the midst of it, whatever it is? I’d like to always answer yes. I would even say I am willing to fight for that yes – to fight for belief when I am downcast and when I am filled with delight.

Because belief is slippery, but God is not.

This morning, we read the passage from Matthew 14:22-33. You may know the story. The disciples get caught in a doozy of a storm, in the middle of the night, with no rescue in sight. Jesus had just sent them off in the boat hours earlier while he dismissed the crowds and prayed in the mountains. The storm raged the waves and the storm raged the little boat, but still Jesus did not come. In the fourth watch of night, Jesus appeared on the water and His presence terrified the disciples. Jesus announced Himself by saying,

“Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.”

I love, love, love this. Because I am afraid often, in or outside of storms. I am afraid of taxes and of falling in front of subways and of wasting moments. I am afraid often. This morning, I learned that the most common command in Scripture is against fear.

I love that we are commanded not to fear by the One who casts fear out by His presence.

And Peter believes. He watches Jesus walking on top of the evil deeps and says, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” This is belief. He believed that the words of Jesus held power over fear and over the deeps and over the doozy of a storm. He is not free of doubt, but He believes in the power of Jesus’ word above all else.

Jesus said, “Come” and so Peter got out. Just like that. He put one leg over the edge and then the other. Or maybe he jumped. But, I love how simple we read the words. When Jesus said, “Come,” Peter physically moved from feet-on-the-boat to feet-on-the-water. This is belief!

What does it mean to believe Jesus is present?

>>It means I believe He is sovereign.
His presence – forever before and forever after this moment – is a proclamation of His sovereignty. When Peter stepped out there on the rumbly waves, he was saying that He believed Jesus had control over the wind and the waves and his life.

Life is ripe for adventure – for all the crazy, troubling, exciting ways Christ is saying, “Come.” When we believe He is strong over little and big evils, over little and big joys, we believe His sovereignty is more important than our feelings about circumstances. And we believe that strength is exactly where we are – here, present with us.

>>It means I believe He will hold me up.
Okay, so Peter was not perfect at believing, but Christ held him up. When the waves splashed at his ankles and when he started to wobble, Christ held him up. Peter believed in Christ enough to get his legs over the edge. He believed Christ cared for Him deeply and would keep His word.

I want to be held up and I want to need to be held up, because then I can know a more full God. I can know a little more of His power that I would never know if I stayed in the boat. It is good to be willfully in a place of need so God is praised for provision. In this case, the provision was life and Peter believed Jesus was able.

>>It means I will move toward Him.
I love to look at the movement in the gospels. The crowds come to Jesus, the disciples follow Jesus, and Jesus calls people to Himself. There is a movement of drawing near in the good news of the gospel and there is a movement in this life when we believe Jesus is present. As I believe Jesus is sovereign and able and good, I am always moving to be nearer to Him.

This morning in the sermon, my pastor talked about all Jesus’ miracles really being about the presence of Jesus. And I can see the beauty and weight of that statement when I think of the gospel moving today. Nearer still, my heart cries. Believe He is sovereign, believe He will hold me up, and believe He is calling, “Come.”

These are my Sunday thoughts, drenched in rare February sunshine and spread out over the full length of this Sabbath. The message of presence in the season of Epiphany is not worn out. It will never because we will never run out of Jesus.