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)

truth is like gravity

C.S. Lewis calls it “chronological snobbery.” I call it imagined progress or fake sanctification or foolishness. His words are better, I know (are we surprised?). He only needed two words to pinpoint our pride in the tick marks of a timeline, but I’m going to use this whole blog post to pound out my thoughts.

We are not the Israelites complaining in the desert and we are not Hitler’s Germany in 1914 and we are not our more segregated relatives and we are no longer our 15-year-old selves. Chronology cancels things out – time does not allow us to live in minutes that have already passed.

But chronology does not cancel out Truth.

Truth is always the same because God is always the same. What was true for the Israelites and wartime Germany and Rosa Parks and high school youth group – all of that is true right now, because truth does not change. Humanity is depraved and that depravity rears its ugly head in every generation. We will always fall short, always fail at perfection, always choose our own way. But God, being rich in mercy…

But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. (Ephesians 2:4-7 ESV)

Somehow, with all our progress, we have not developed out of a need for salvation and we never will. We still very much need God to be rich in mercy. We will always need for Him to show immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.

But sometimes, it seems like our tendency is to talk down to our 15-year-old selves – like the truth we heard in our youth was too simple, too naive, and too old-fashioned. It is tempting for my generation to look back on history and be proud that we don’t segregate water fountains or worship golden calves or let our taxes build incinerators. But truth doesn’t change like gravity doesn’t change. It just is. We will always need salvation and we will always need truth – the same truth the Israelites needed and the same truth Hitler needed and the same truth my youth pastor taught my 15-year-old self every Sunday night.

Depravity needs truth and truth never changes. We should be neither proud of our progress nor discouraged by our sinful state because depravity has an antidote. We are sanctified from one degree of glory to the next (2 Corinthians 3:18), but it is more like lights turning on in a farmhouse than mile markers passed on a highway.

We are not better than our ancestors or our younger selves; we all are faced with the same Truth. Little children and old grandparents and 15-year-olds in youth group and post modern hipsters in Brooklyn – by God’s grace we can all know the kind of truth that sets us free. And the truth of Jesus Christ never changes, ever. As we mature and grow in knowledge of the Lord, we are diving deeper into the same well.

If I read Ephesians 2 every day, I would be overwhelmed by the same Truth – different lights in the same house of my soul and none of the lights would cancel out.

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands—remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit. (Ephesians 2:8-22 ESV)

These are my morning musings – the things I can pound out in the 30-45 minutes before leaving for work. I do not pretend they make every kind of sense, but I do hope they inspire thought and response and a deeper examination of the Word. 

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.

still epiphany

We’re still in that season on the church calendar called Epiphany, but it sure is easy to forget about it. Without the Christmas clutter, whether we embrace it or fight it, we are less aware of any spiritual season. At least I am.

And then a song comes through my headphones on my way to work in the morning called Lazarus by Jon Guerra. I remember that this season is about practicing presence. I remember that Jesus walked the earth – that He came to live with us, inside our human struggle. And when he saw pain and death and sickness, he walked towards it. He was fully present in every kind of place with every kind of person.

This is how Jesus responded when the sisters sent word that the one He loved was sick,

“But when Jesus heard it he said, “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” John 11:4

He did not rush like an EMT to the scene or run the opposite direction from the tragedy’s sadness. He did not avoid Judea, though the people tried to stone him the last time he was in town. Jesus was slow, steady, and confident that his presence possessed the authority of the One who sent Him.

And I forget that.

I forget that Jesus is present in the darkness of this world and present in the darkness of my heart. He walks toward the darkness and offends it with the light of His truth. He walks toward dead bones and this is what he says,

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” John 11:25-26

His presence means resurrection and it means life. And we are all Lazarus, dead for four days, lost in darkness. We are all wrapped up, bodies bandaged and cold, when He makes Himself present to us and then makes us alive to Him. Do we believe this? Do we live believing that faith means we will never die? Do we walk out God’s daily miracles of future grace with a confidence of one who will live forever?

When he had said these things, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out.” John 11:43

Every day, he stands at the door of our death tombs and says, “Come out.” He reminds us that He is present here in this dark day and in our dark hearts. He calls for us to be present with Him and to be His presence. He calls us to “come out” of darkness in order to speak life into a world of death.

This is the season of Epiphany, where we celebrate Jesus being present among us. Let us not forget all His benefits (Psalm 103)!

although we are weeping

Mouths filled with laughter and tongues loosed with joy, that would be ideal. It’s the kind of delight your lungs can’t handle.

But, that kind of delight is not a constant state of emotion and maybe that’s why I liked singing this song so much on Sunday during communion. It is a peaceful prayer that believes God is faithful. It is a prayer that believes God will keep His promises. It is a prayer that trudges through death and sorrow and ugliness, believing God can and will restore.

Psalm 126 (Our Mouths They Were Filled)

Our mouths they were filled, filled with laughter
Our tongues they were loosed, loosed with joy
Restore us, O Lord
Restore us, O Lord

Although we are weeping
Lord, help us keep sowing
The seeds of Your Kingdom
For the day You will reap them
Your sheaves we will carry
Lord, please do not tarry
All those who sow weeping will go out with songs of joy

The nations will say, “He has done great things!”
The nations will sing songs of joy
Restore us, O Lord
Restore us, O Lord

This is a familiar heartbeat of mine that is hard to explain. It is the messy sadness I feel even while I am rooted in joy. It is hoping and believing when days are weighty and when words are flat. It is the joy of an eternal God who has promised restoration and will be faithful to deliver.

Although we are weeping
Lord, help us keep sowing
The seeds of Your kingdom
For the day You will reap them
Your sheaves we will carry
Lord, please do not tarry
All those who sow weeping will go out with songs of joy

And this is the good, hard work of believing Him for who He is. When we are weeping, He is the help to sow the seeds of His kingdom. When we are weak and afraid and tired and lazy and distracted, He is the strength we need to live outwardly and love unselfishly.

He is building a kingdom and He is using the weepers. He is populating heaven and He has not just asked the bubbly ones to be recruiters.

I love that He is the strength and the help for those who obey through tears. This is a hard fought believing. This is a daily grind believing and future grace is the rhythm.

I believe He is able to restore and I believe He is able to redeem.
And I believe He will.

in the name of the One who is not ashamed of you

There are puddles outside, making funny reflections of this strange winter season. It was 50 degrees yesterday and today it is 48 in the Big Apple. These rainy days are making me want Spring to come, and soon. I’m getting hungry for buds and blooms and the kind of wet earth that makes things grow. I’m getting homesick for the time of year when things come alive, up out of the dead ground.

But right now, it is Epiphany season.

We flipped the church calendar after Christmas. After all the wrapping gets stuffed away and all the toys get shoved in corners and under beds. We move on and push forward and just get by until there is something new to celebrate by breaking our routine and budget once again.

But right now, it is Epiphany season.

When Jesus came as a baby, his life was not as short as a birth. His presence was not an event, simply celebrated inside paid holidays. He slept and awoke and ate and drank and loved and walked and served and … well, he lived. His presence spanned from his first breath to his last gasp – and all the physical life lived in the flatlands in between.

That is what we are celebrating in Epiphany: Christ came and lived with us – next to us in a real house, in a real city, on the real ground of this world.

And it is Epiphany season in the flatlands.

The good news of God’s presence is that He was not surprised at the weight of the incarnation. He didn’t plan for an early exit once He realized just how bad things had gotten down on earth. His days were marked with human chronology. His heart beat with human rhythm.

In the middle of a wayward world, Christ was not ashamed to know and be known by the neighbors, the neglected, the friends, and the frightened ones. He was present.

What crazy news we carry around with us in the flatlands! Christ chose [and chooses] to be present inside human chronology and present inside human rhythm. He is not ashamed to call us His children, not ashamed to rescue the lost. He is not ashamed to reach down and mend the ways we’ve been broken and the ways we break others. He is not ashamed to say, “You are mine.” The God of the universe was not ashamed to claim my eternity for heaven on the cross and He is not ashamed to cover my life with His presence on earth.

We have the most supreme delight in a gift that is never completely unwrapped, never completely old news, never completely discovered.

We have this delight in the presence of Jesus at our breakfast table and in our daily commute and at the laundromat and at pancake Mondays and at the Saturday night party. Sometimes the delight feels like a fight and other times it feels like free tickets to our favorite destination. But, all the time Jesus is present and all the time His presence never runs out.

I’m learning to practice presence.

I am learning to be present, in the name of the One who is not ashamed of me. That’s what I read on Sunday night in my evening reflection and it was fitting because I needed a lesson on presence before Pancake Mondays could get filled with anxiety. Spurgeon wrote,

“Seek in the name of Him who was not ashamed of you – to do some little violence to your feelings, and tell to others what Christ has told to you. If you cannot speak with trumpet tongue, use the still small voice. If the pulpit must not be your tribune, if the press may not carry your words on its wings – yet say with Peter and John, “Silver and gold have I none – but such as I have, I give you.””

It sounds dramatic to do violence to my feelings, but it really is necessary sometimes. Christ’s presence is a fact that changes everything, no matter what the colors of my current emotional state. When my anxiety and fears and insecurities are pushed aside, I am free to live like Christ’s presence is a game changer for my identity and the most important gift I can give to every person in my day. This is how we celebrate Christ’s presence – not like an elephant in the room, but more like a chocolate fountain. It is what excites us, thrills us, animates us, and motivates us to delight.

I’ve rambled enough for a post-work/pre-evening post. Go out and get present with someone tonight – get kindred and conversational with someone. Neglected and/or neighbor, friend and/or frightened – go out and get present.

Go out and get present because Christ is not ashamed to be present with you.