when the Spirit says

I was in the church choir a couple weeks ago and we sang a beautiful song. It had few words, but the melody moved like little children’s feet. I could see bodies swaying in my peripheral vision and then I realized my hips were moving, too. It is that kind of song.

Our choir director sent us this version to encourage a few minutes of preparation before we came together as a group for the hour rehearsal on Sunday morning.

I love the simplicity.

It sounds like a child vowing to do a very noble and impossible thing without knowing how impossible it is (but believing the nobility warrants dramatic commitment). Simple, noble, honest, and impossible.

And that little chorus has been playing across my soul for the weeks since. And I started to wonder “when the Spirit says” pray in my life, because those are the times when my dramatic commitment is tested.

Do I become dishonest when I do not pray when the Spirit says pray? Am I less honest when I bury my worries or when I share joys with friends or when I sing grief in sad songs?

Redemption is wrapped up in the “I’m gonna,” or at least that’s how I read it. Like a child who forgot (again) to clean up his toys or help her brother or stay inside the fence, we look up with round, noble eyes and present our honest “I’m gonna” to the Father who knows how many times we have strayed.

He is the one who makes us honest. Because of redemption, because of His mercies new every morning, we can claim freedom to pray and sing and serve and love and dance in the ways Christ has called us to do those things.

In Christ, our sanctification is a hard and honest refining, a grace covered progress where all our “I’m gonna’s” depend on all His “I did’s.”

 

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)

rain & sadness

The drip, drip, drop little April showers are finally ushering in a Spring that will stay in the city – I think. I don’t mind pulling on my rain boots in the morning or carrying around an umbrella. I don’t mind at all because there are bird chirps in the morning and sun shines behind the clouds. I don’t mind because last night I wore a dress without tights for date night and lingered over coffee on the Lower East Side with my favorite human after going to an event with only tourists in attendance. I don’t mind that the rain started when we walked home because he covered me with his coat.

Rain is also the most fitting backdrop to this week of lament, nestled inside the forty day reflection of Lent. I have a hard time knowing where to store all the sadness that weighs like literal weight on my soul. I am sad for my own sin, heaped on the back of my Savior. I am sad because my sin makes the cross a necessity. But heaped upon those heaps is a sadness for whitewashed Christian fellowship.

Christ went to the cross for that, too – for all the ways we fail at Christian community, all the ways we do not trust and obey.

I’ve been thinking about Christian fellowship quite a bit lately and then I read this today in my devotional.

The way of Christian fellowship is empathy, which means we must not assume that everyone around us is fine. In our conversations, we must listen for complaints and cries and help them become laments. In our gathered worship, we must acknowledge the hurting and leave room for struggle and silence. In our counsel, we must pray with and over and for the hurting. This is essential to authentic Christian faith: Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ (Galatians 6:2).

We are not fine, that’s why Christ had to die. In his death and resurrection, He secured our freedom but we will not be truly “fine” until we meet Him in eternity. There is struggle here and the Christian community is not a place to hide that struggle, but instead a place to share it.

And, maybe, it is our ability to bear one another’s burdens well that looks different to the world. Maybe our joyful suffering together is the kind of testimony to the suffering of the cross that this generation would understand.

like a heavy raindrop on my soul

My pastor is trying to trick us into memorizing Psalm 32, all of it. I guess I can’t call it a trick if he told us the plan and if we all recite it together once a week. The second Sunday I read it in the bulletin, my voice slipped into the lull of liturgy and my mind tried to wander. I mouthed the words in the light of stained glass and corporate contemplation. I wasn’t surprised when the reading ended and I felt like I could have just read a paragraph from any book. This past Sunday, we read chapter 32 again and I soaked it in.

I let each word fall like a heavy raindrop on my soul.

And I was not disappointed.

I am in a bit of a word desert right now. I don’t like to write when I have nothing to say and I think that is for the best. This morning I am content to hear words spoken over me – the same words God is speaking over all His creation in this very moment.

Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.

Blessed is the man against whom the LORD counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.

For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. Selah

I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,” and you forgave the iniquity of my sin. Selah

Therefore let everyone who is godly offer prayer to you at a time when you may be found; surely in the rush of great waters, they shall not reach him.

You are a hiding place for me; you preserve me from trouble; you surround me with shouts of deliverance. Selah

I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you. Be not like a horse or a mule, without understanding, which must be curbed with bit and bridle, or it will not stay near you.

Many are the sorrows of the wicked, but steadfast love surrounds the one who trusts in the LORD. Be glad in the LORD, and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart! (Psalm 32 ESV)

a series of unfortunate events & my favorite human

Do you have a favorite human?

Before you all say, “Jesus” in the spirit of Lent… let me give you spiritual immunity to choose someone else. Favorites have always been really difficult for me – if you ask for my favorite musical artist, I would ask you in what genre. If you ask for my favorite food, I would ask you baked or cooked. If you ask for my favorite season, I would ask in what location.

Favorites are hard, but my favorite human is becoming an easier question to answer. I still have many favorite people, but there is some significance in being able to say there is one person who is my favorit-est.

Last night, I walked in to my apartment feeling very defeated after two weeks of restless/little sleep, a frenzied work and social schedule, and all my life packed away in separate and sealed plastic bags. I have been keeping this nitty-gritty life news off the blog because it’s embarrassing and because it didn’t seem appropriate to publicize my misfortune. Now that (it seems) my apartment is in the clear, I will cautiously share the series of unfortunate events that led to my confident conclusion that Patrick Kolts is my favorite human.

You might remember that for the last couple weeks we have been hosting Pancake Mondays at Patrick’s apartment (which is conveniently and miraculously 2 avenues from mine). Previously, I had been inviting the neighbors in my building via handwritten postcards taped to their doors. I also invited folks who lived in the neighborhood, the security guard at my school, my coworkers, church friends, and really anyone who was curious. And they came. And it was beautiful. Some nights, we had a full crowd of folks who stayed for board games after all the pancakes were passed around. Other nights, we had more intimate gatherings around our little table.

Every Monday on the other side of our open apartment door, there were pancakes and toppings and bacon. Patrick came over to fry the bacon and share hosting duties and my roommates were unbelievably gracious with all the shenanigans. Tam orchestrated the tiny bowls that held all the toppings and Elise whipped up vegan pancakes on several occasions. We didn’t have much to offer, but the bacon smell wafting through the open door was enough to draw them in and the conversation was enough to keep them.

We did not apologize for all the things we couldn’t offer our guests and instead offered everything we had with the biggest neighborly smiles.

Then, about a month ago, I was writing a blog in my bed when I looked down to find a bug on my shirt. Bed bugs. My New York initiation continues. Apartment hunting, root canal, commuting woes, and now what most natives call the apartment dweller’s worst nightmare. The next morning the bug was confirmed and over the next 48 hours I heard stories from plenty of folks who told me my life would be literally and figuratively turned upside down to get rid of those little devils. Awesome.

The worst of it, among drying every item of clothing at high heat and stuffing every belonging into sealed plastic bags, was that my favorite part of living in the city (hosting) would not happen for awhile. Well, it was a lot of worst, honestly. The time it took to dig through multiple plastic bags every morning for something presentable to wear to work, the skeptical stares of people who kept their distance because they knew my “situation,” the paranoia about every piece of fuzz and every person in the subway… all of it was worst, but God is gracious.

The exterminator came and went the first time with a list of instructions several pages long and additional instructions to complete before he came a second time. And life did not stop. I didn’t tell people because I felt ashamed and awkward. We just kept trying to keep up with the city pace – work, outings, and winter hibernation. I slept on the loveseat and on air mattresses that never seemed to stay inflated. And I faked it a lot. These are the times when you claim the joy you cannot feel. These are the times you test the full commitment of your dependence. Mine failed often, but God’s grace held me up.

In the middle of all this, my pastor asked the Pancake Mondays crew to host a pancake feast at the church before Lent started and we did. We flipped pancakes for around 130 people and they smeared fresh whipped cream, jams, coconut, chocolate chips, and syrup all over the tops. It felt crazy, but it also felt really good. Long tables with vases of flowers and crayons, filled with people fellowshipping over a pancake feast. It felt perfect, actually.

The very next night, we shifted Pancake Mondays over to Patrick’s apartment and had an unbelievable turnout from his building. They loved his handmade invitations and the pancakes and the conversation around his coffee table. And so it has gone for the past three weeks – every week has blessed us in new ways. New neighbors, new friends, new conversation and inspiration and new encouragement to our weary spiritual bones. I guess I can just speak for myself, but all these things are more true than the words I am writing.

The exterminator came and went the second time and told us we could start moving our belongings back on Thursday. We held our breath for signs of the bed bugs that would prevent any unpacking of plastic. No signs.

Meanwhile, I slept little and spent even less time in my room because the sight of piled plastic bags and a deflated air mattress was more than my spirit could bear. That brings me to last night, when I staggered into the apartment after work around 7 pm, carrying several bags of groceries for my early Friday morning staff appreciation event.

My roommates were mid-giggle when they suggested I go in to my room. There, I found my old bed replaced with a new bed, a new carpet, lamp, and bathmat. And I just stood there weeping with my coat still on and my bags still in hand. I was so tired I could only think about crawling into that new bed and sleeping for two days.

Patrick had asked me that morning what he could do to help and I told him I wished I knew what I needed. Well, it was that bed. I needed to sleep and I didn’t realize how much I needed it until I almost made a puddle of tears on the floor, where all the plastic bags still sat. He knew what I needed even when I didn’t know how to ask for it.

“This man,” I thought, “He is my favorite human.”

As it turns out, this whole ordeal is not just an exercise in willpower and stamina. It is not just another in series of unfortunate events that have initiated me into New York City. It is not just something I had to “get through” in full survival mode.

The Lord is good. He is gracious and He is faithful.

The Lord reminds me often that He is the best host. He is the best at throwing parties and loving neighbors and giving things away. He wrote the book on hospitality and His well is so deep that it is never empty. There is always pancakes and always bacon and always conversation and always love in His house. His pockets are deep.

God does not depend on the circumstances to be just right. When you own everything, the circumstances are always just right.

It was never my apartment or my idea or my food or my doorway or my energy. He is the provider with access to all provision and He never withholds any good thing from His children. All the abundance of blessings that have come in the three weeks of bed bug-induced mayhem are overwhelming and each one had everything to do with God’s hosting abilities and nothing to do with mine. Inside this series of unfortunate, new-to-the-Big-Apple events God never withheld a single good thing from me. 

For the LORD God is a sun and shield; the LORD bestows favor and honor. No good thing does he withhold from those who walk uprightly. Psalm 84:11

He protects and blesses and sustains and cheers with an abundance that made me weep at the sight of a new bed last night. And these are growing pains, in a spiritual sense. I will never learn His provision completely or depend on Him perfectly and that is okay.

He is the best host and we are always invited in to His house to learn this lesson over again.

#callingmeout

Oh, hey Lent devotional on the first day of Spring. #callingmeout

Our consumerism is rooted in a lack of faith. We are worried about what others think because we are not convinced that God delights in us (Psalm 149:4). We are anxious because we do not believe God will meet our needs (Matthew 6:32). We vie for attention because we do not think God rewards what is done in secret (Matthew 6:6). We compare ourselves to others because we forget that Jesus is our righteousness (1 Corinthians 1:30). A consumer is self-seeking because he is preoccupied with building his own kingdom in order to meet his own needs. During Lent, Jesus especially calls us to re-right our lives, to “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33)

Spring is here, officially. That’s what the calendar says, anyway. I want so badly for winter to be over – to emerge from all the caves we’ve been hiding inside. But when I read this paragraph this morning, I realized winter cannot be the scapegoat for a wayward heart.

I am a worried, anxious, attention-seeking, comparison complexing, self-seeking consumer. I can blame it on winter, but I would be wrong. Because I can lack faith in the middle of the best blooming Spring the same way I can lack faith in the wake of a forever winter.

This is the beauty of Lent, in the “re-righting” of our lives, God invites us to believe that He is full of miracles to overflow every season. Every season, miracles. Every season, faithfulness. Every season, provision. Every season, righteousness. Every season, abundance.

Every season, always joy.

I may not feel like pastel colors and singing in the rain, but God’s offer of abundance is not based on my feelings or my willingness to accept it. God’s offer of abundance is based on His goodness and I am missing out to believe in anything else. I am missing out because nothing else will fill me up and nothing else will give an overflow I can pour out in service to others.

The grace of God turns us into servants. Instead of demanding that we be served, we joyfully lay down our rights and seek to serve God and others.

*Excerpts from this Lent Devotional, Journey to the Cross.

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.