Remembering Isaac – a prayer

May you rise from the place where you are bound
as Isaac did from the altar where he was bound –
as one forever changed.
With a new sense of self
a new love of life
a new understanding of God’s love for you
a new sense of God’s presence with you.

And may you rise from the trauma of your altar –
the loss of control
the fear
the pain
the despair
As Isaac did,
resurrected to a new life
a changed life
a life redeemed again
in a second, more powerful, deeper conversion.
To a life transformed
an experience transcended
a place not known before.
To a deep place of satisfaction in God
confidence in his care
and in his love for you.
To a body profoundly healed.

– for Tina, and for all of us

Downward Mobility and Ego

“I want to have control
I want a perfect body
I want a perfect soul.
I want you to notice
When I’m not around
You’re so f—— special
I wish I was special.”
“Creep” – Radiohead

“And after each performance
People stand around and wait
Just to tell me that they loved my voice
Just to tell me that I’m great.”
“Opera Singer” – Cake

“If you do not control your ego, your ego will control you. If you do not have a plan for your ego, your ego will have a plan for you. You can be the master of your ego, or you can be its slave. It’s your choice.” (Vincent M. Roazzi in The Spirituality of Success)

Can you picture this: Three men standing around in the lobby after church talking about how “ego” sabotages our relationships – and even it’s impact on our conversation right then?! I was interested, but even more, I was convicted. So much so that God seemed to give me this prayer.* I wrote it down so I can return to it often (like daily):

“Lord, I come to you to confess that I am powerless over the domination of my ego. Instead of me controlling it, it controls me. Help me to subject myself to you first, and in doing so to learn to subject myself to others. Help me to be quiet before you first, and in doing so to learn how to be quiet before others. Help me to attend to you first, and in doing so to learn to truly attend to others.

Deep down I know that
… since you are in control, I don’t need to control others
… since you have heard me, I don’t always need to make myself heard by others
… and since I am loved and have favor with you, I need not strive to win the love and favor of others.

Help me to act according to the promptings of your Spirit instead of the compulsions of the flesh –
… waiting for permission from you before I act or speak
… and practicing doing “small things” for “nobodies” when no-one is watching.

I pray these things Lord, because in these ways I am “so far from the kingdom of God.”

“So what could I say?
And what could I do?
But offer this heart, Oh God
Completely to you?”
“The Stand” – Hillsong

*with special thanks to Steven and Vic, whom God used to minister to me in an unexpected moment at The Bridge Church

“Do This In Remembrance of Me”

I grew up in a religious tradition where we celebrated communion only once a quarter. I think the relative infrequency of this was both a reaction to the sacramental approach which can be weekly or even daily, and as a guard against the ceremony becoming commonplace in the church.  Now I’m attending  a church where “the Lord’s Supper” occurs every Sunday. What I’ve discovered is, that the repetition has changed it for me – in a good way. I’ve been “reached” by the ceremony on a deeper level than before. (It’s like some worship songs that repeat the same line over and over. Sometimes after I’ve sung the line six times, I find that on the seventh time I actually think about what I’m singing! Something like that.) Here’s how that worked for me just last Sunday.

To the Corinthian church the Apostle Paul wrote these familiar words about the Lord’s Table:

23 For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” 25 In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 26 For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”

What we do “in remembrance of” Jesus at the Lord’s table involves two of the most basic foods in history – bread and wine. Today, as throughout history, incorporating these into one’s daily diet is quite typical. They’re common. If you eat, you’ll probably consume them frequently.

When I hold the bread in one hand and the cup in the other, and I look down at them, I ask myself, “Why these elements?”, and “What is it about these elements that should make me think about Jesus and what he did for me?” Or, “Of what exactly are these elements supposed to make me think?” This is what I was wondering last Sunday. (I know the symbolism of the Lord’s Table is rich and the underlying theology is deep. Most of that is beyond the scope of what I’m writing about now. What I want to try to do is to “read” what happens at the Lord’s table the way one would “read” a passage of Scripture in lectio divina. In other words, on top of any known theology that relates, and without stepping outside of the controls that come with a proper understanding of Scripture study, what I did was attempt to ask myself, “What is God saying to me right now, as I hold the bread in one hand, and the cup in the other?”, “What thoughts will prepare me today to meaningfully remember the Lord at his table?”) Here’s what I felt I received:

I’m about to eat the piece of bread I’m holding. I’m going to chew it until it crumbles into a broken collection of particles that no longer resemble what I started with. In a way I’m going to pummel it, and pulverize it, and destroy its form and shape – and then it’s going to enter my body and nourish, strengthen and sustain me. It’s literally going to give me life. I beat it and destroy it, and then it gives me life.

In Isaiah, the Servant of the Lord “was crushed for our iniquities” and “by his wounds we are healed.” (Isa. 53:5b,d) That’s the correlation I’m talking about. When I look at the bread and wonder, “Why bread?” and “Why eat bread?” the answer is that bread it very common, thus very often eaten, and that perhaps by eating bread in this ritual, I will remember when I’m eating my “daily bread” what exactly Christ, the bread of God, has done for me. He has responded to my crushing of him, the pummeling and pulverizing and destroying of him (my rebellion and my great sin), by bringing me life, health and sustenance through that crushed body of his. “By his wounds we are healed.” (And “healed” in the sense of “saved” or “delivered” or “made well or whole.”)

In the same way he took the cup…. Imagine how many times, since that night when Jesus shared a cup of wine with his beloved friends, that others have lifted the cup together over a meal. Again, perhaps if I can think clearly about the wine in the ceremony, then I will make a mental connection to this “daily wine” that is such a big part of the diet of the human race. Perhaps, “whenever” I lift the cup (not just in church) I will be unable to do so without “remembering” him.

And the question is the same, “Why wine?”, and “Why drink the wine?” In Joel’s O.T. prophecy, the Lord himself offers wine – in addition to two other very common food products (grain and olive oil) – as indicators of his restoration and blessing of his people:

“I am sending you grain, new wine and olive oil,
enough to satisfy you fully;
never again will I make you
an object of scorn to the nations.” (Joel 2:19)

And notice how so much of this comes together or is echoed in Psalm 104:

14 [The Lord] makes grass grow for the cattle,
and plants for people to cultivate—
bringing forth food from the earth:
15 wine that gladdens human hearts,
oil to make their faces shine,
and bread that sustains their hearts. (Ps. 104:14,15)

The blood of Jesus will be spilled. It will no longer be in his body – it will make its way to a cup. People will drink it. I will drink it – even though it’s me who caused the spilling of his blood. I caused his blood to be spilled, and now I’m drinking it, and in the process, he brings me gladness and joy – the blood of the killed Savior (the Savior that I killed) that I take into my body by the cup, God gives to me as a means of restoration and promised blessing. It represents one of his most basic and satisfying gifts. (Joel 2:19) It gladdens my heart. (Ps. 104:14) The sadness I caused God brings me joy.

So in every experience of partaking of the “body and the blood of the Lord”, by the bread and the wine, if I’m paying attention, I will remember not only that his death is what has given and continues to give me life (salvation, health, wholeness, wellness, joy), but that I am the cause of his death. His grace his triumphed over my guilt. My very sin towards God the Son, has been used by God the Father to become his instrument of blessing to me. Selah.

To me, this is a little different from remembering that (1) Christ died for sinners and that (2) I am a sinner. It’s more than remembering that (3) his body was broken for me in spite of me being a sinner and that (4) the blessings of the New Covenant are mine through this that he did. It’s all this, but it’s more. It’s reliving and thus remembering each time I chew the bread or sip down the wine that I am at the same time the one who destroyed the Son of God, and the one given new life by him through his destruction. The guilty one partakes and lives. The most unworthy one is blessed.

It’s unheard of good news without precedent. In fact it seems just “too good” to remember only quarterly.

________

Postscript: The next time at the Table led to another devotional thought: The bread and wine, being the most basic and common food of all, represent all that we eat and drink. As I look down at these symbols, I realize that God must give me what I need to live. I can’t do anything but receive.

A Good Friday Meditation

I hadn’t been a good son for years. I had my reasons, so I just stayed away. Now I was going home for the holiday. It was dark and wet and cold, and as usual, I was late. To save time I cut through a baseball field near the house. Before I reached the infield, the smell hit me – I had forgotten how the geese love these fields, and now their “dirt” was jammed into the soles of my shoes. Then, in my hurry and with the wet grass, I stepped in a muddy puddle and slipped. My hands were full with bags of food for the evening – my contribution to the reconciliation meal so long in coming. I went down face first into the disgusting grass, soiling my clothes and dumping the food. It couldn’t be worse. I smelled like a sewer, and the carefully chosen peace-offering was ruined.

As I mounted the front steps and knocked, it crossed my mind to turn back. As the porch light came on, I no longer wondered. Now I saw how disgustingly filthy I was.

Before I could move, the door swung open and I saw my father’s face. He quickly scanned me from head to toe and exclaimed, “Come in my son. We have a wonderful meal for you, and we’ve all been waiting. I can’t tell you how great it is to see you. Nothing could make me happier than you’re being here with me tonight. I thought my heart would break from missing you.”

Shame or Conviction? Choose Carefully

“Got my feet on the earth, but my face to the sky.”
Toby Mac in Hey Devil

Imagine that next Sunday, your pastor or priest begins his morning talk like this:

“The longer I live, the more I am aware of my sinfulness, faithlessness, lack of courage, narrow-mindedness; the more I feel the surging waves of greed, lust, violence, and indignation roaring in my innermost self. Growing older has not made life with God easier. In fact, it has become harder to experience his presence, to feel his love, to taste his goodness, to touch his caring hands.”

Or imagine if instead it was a missionary that your church supported, laying bare his heart like this:

“As I said, I want a woman – just one to hold and press against me, to feel and fondle with my lips and fingers. Disgustingly, it could be any woman, as I cannot seem to bring her [his fiancée] fixedly to mind, and it is just the woman want [sic] that plagues me, the craving to feel one close to me.”

Or the same man recounting this near misadventure:

“Yesterday, walking back from Angu’s house after injecting Augostine (who, praise God is better after his near death struggle with pneumonia), I was alone in the cool, dark forest, and I knew then how vulnerable I am just now to attacks of fleshly temptations. Even then, I don’t know how it would have been had I met an Indian woman alone in the trail. O God, what a ferocious thing is sexual desire, and how often it is on me now.”

You’d probably be consulting the bulletin to see if you mistakenly wandered into a 12-step meeting, right? Or wondering, “Where do they get these guys? This is a pastor?! This is a missionary?!”

Imagine again then, that just when you thought you were as surprised as you could be at church, that you learn that the pastor (priest) speaking about his “greed, lust and violence” was Henri Nouwen, beloved and admired as a spiritual director around the world, and that the missionary suffering with “ferocious” sexual desire (which he calls “woman want”) was the martyred and revered missionary Jim Elliot.

We’re shocked. The church admires and loves these men. They’re supposed to be so much better than us. It turns out they have some pretty ugly desires. It turns out they might succumb to some pretty ugly behavior. We might even say of them, as we sometimes say of ourselves, “They ought to be ashamed.”

That’s how it works, right? When we become so powerfully aware of our sin, we beat up on ourselves, wrap ourselves in shame, and begin to distance ourselves from God. We understand why Judas hung himself. We understand why, after the Apostle Peter denied the Lord, he quit the ministry.

But this predictable response is a bad choice. The sin-shame cycle leads to a worsened spiritual walk and therefore to even more failure. It also causes us to run from God like Jonah tried to do. We can’t look at ourselves in the mirror, or God in the face. Gradually, if we perform well, we begin to feel more worthy (i.e., less shameful), and we move back towards God again – at least until the cycle repeats itself, which it inevitably does.

Fortunately,  we can choose another response when we sin. Instead of receiving shame, we can accept conviction. Shame comes from our enemy – “the accuser of the brethren” and is destructive in its intent and poisonous in its experience. Conviction, on the other hand, comes from the Spirit of God and is therapeutic in its intent and healing in its experience.

* When I sin, God lovingly convicts me because he wants to restore me to fellowship with him and prevent my spiraling headlong into even more or worse sin. I can wholehearted “agree” with God in his verdict – “You’re right. I have sinned. It’s bad.”, and give myself to God’s healing work in me.

* When I sin, “the accuser” maliciously shames me because he wants to make he hate myself, and cause me to distance myself from God and become unhappy and ineffective. This sin-shame-loathing paradigm is the one I have to reject – rejecting both the shame and the loathing.

It’s not that we take our sin lightly. Just listen to Nouwen’s words. They convey pain and a longing to do better – to be better, healthier. It’s just that we refuse to beat ourselves up. We refuse to listen to our enemy instead of our God. Think about King David’s response to his sin in Psalm 51. Confession yes, shame no. And if we reread Jim Elliot’s words, they are reminiscent of the Apostle Paul’s words about being the “chief of sinners” – or “doing the things that he hates.” In each case we’re hearing a profound angst, a shockingly honest and bitter confession, but no self-flagellation.

It’s possible to be serious about sin, and to feel profound remorse for it, and angst when you look in the mirror, and yet not to embrace shame. These words from St. Jerome (345-420 A.D.) who had retreated to the desert to seek after God, illustrate that powerfully. He writes, “In the remotest part of a wild and stony desert burnt up with the heat of the scorching sun so that it frightens even the monks that inhabit it, I seemed myself to be in the midst of the delights and crowds of Rome…. Many times I imagined myself witnessing the dancing of the Roman maidens as if I had been in the midst of them. … I am not ashamed to disclose my temptations.” Notice, that he confesses that he has failed “many times” – and yet explicitly rejects shame: “I am not ashamed ….”

The choice to reject self-shaming is an important one. God doesn’t require self-shaming or want it. It’s counterproductive going forward, and it bypasses the path to healing. But what’s the alternative?

First, we need to allow for counterintuition. Self-shaming comes naturally to us. Refusing self-shaming and instead embracing conviction is counterintuitive. In high altitude mountain climbing you begin to feel sick, and desperately want to lay down, but that’s the worse thing you can do. You have to fight your instincts. You have to keep moving. In a similar way we have to renounce the shame that seems so natural.

Secondly, we have to embrace the conviction. For most of my Christian life, I’ve been taught to think at this point of 1 John 1:9. It’s a great verse, and appropriate here. But simply “confessing [naming] my sin” before God to enter back into fellowship with him is a treatment unequal to the disease. The confession brings the promised forgivenessbut doesn’t address the need for healing.

Third, we need to make ourselves available to God for healing. This is where we can return to Henri Nouwen. He tells us often of the need to find solitude and enter into silence. He tells us to spend time just being with God, offering up to him any weaknesses God reveals to us, and submitting ourselves to him for healing. In this way, our sin, rather than pushing us away from God, actually draws us to him. We come without fear of rejection. Indeed, we come because we have sinned. We come allowing him to reveal the harshest reality about us (Not just “What did I do?”, but “Why do I do that?”). We come “with expectation” that he will do this inner work in us. His care for me brings me to the point of a despair which is not despair, since in it I “… despair of myself in order that I may hope entirely in [God].” (Thomas Merton) In this process, if all goes well, we become “poor in spirit” – those who have nothing in themselves to commend themselves to God, but who can nevertheless feel confidence before him.

When we do this God responds with love and acceptance, and gently heals and restores us. (Like what Jesus did for Peter.) What we do transcends confession and petition. Instead we make time simply “to be” in God’s presence. We are just the “innkeeper, making room for the guest.” We attempt simply be present to him, and to whatever he wants to show us. He is in charge. Eugene Peterson’s words about worship apply to this kind of contemplative prayer. It’s what we do, he writes, to “… interrupt our preoccupation with ourselves and attend to the presence of God. [It’s the] time and place that we assign for deliberate attentiveness to God … because our self-importance is so insidiously relentless that if we don’t deliberately interrupt ourselves regularly, we have no chance of attending to him at all at other times and in other places.” Selah.

Author Gary Moon explains that when we approach God in this way – in solitude, in silent listening, waiting humbly and with willingness to hear the worst about our condition, that this “… holds our shame at bay long enough for us to see ourselves as God sees us in Christ.” This is how the shame can be dispensed, and this is how we can become healthier. When we give God the “time and place” that Peterson speaks of, God is able to deal with the root issues of our sin – in addition to forgiving their nasty fruit.

What remains to be seen is – who will we believe? Whose estimate will we embrace? Jesus explained that the devil is our sworn enemy. His ministry is destruction and death. That’s why he tells us we are worthless. Jesus is our advocate. He loves us more than we know. His ministry is truth and life. That’s why he tells us we are precious. Only one of these can be true.

So, every time I am overtaken by some serious, mind-blowing, heart-wrenching, slap-your-head kind of sin, I have to choose. I should remember the stories about Nouwen and Elliot, and about King David and the Apostle Peter. Who did they listen to? Did they embrace shaming? No, it’s clear they didn’t. If they had we never would have heard of them.

And so how about me? Whose voice with I heed? Will I listen to the liar or the Lover? Who speaks the truth to me?

In that moment of testing I’m truly at a “two-roads-diverged-in-a-wood” type crossroads. Much is at stake. I need to choose carefully. We all do.

A Sense of Being Loved by God

“I feel the life His wounds impart;
I feel the Savior in my heart.” – Charles Wesley

I wonder sometimes why it’s so hard for me to feel loved, or to love someone else. Sometimes, when the intimacy level rises in some way – say, between me and my wife, even just in some subtle way in a conversation – I can perceive an almost imperceptible unease that comes over me. I think about how undemonstrative my parents were in many ways, and wonder if that’s the cause. Predictably, my next thought is a question – “Am I perpetuating this situation with my own children?” I’m not that demonstrative myself.

Some people just seem to rejoice in God’s love so easily. They feel it. It warms their hearts. It encourages them. How is that? Sometimes I secretly suspect that they’re just faking it. I’m usually all “up in my head.” I can give you all the proofs that God loves me, but I’m talking about feeling it. Sometimes I just suppose that if I were just less stiff-necked towards God, I would feel it then – but would I? Is this a common problem?

Anyway, in a time of silent prayer, I was listening for God to somehow give me something on this. It was real quiet. Then, I have to admit, I seemed to have sort of an epiphany as my love for my four sons came to mind. First, let me compare that parental love to married love.

In married love husband and wife become “one flesh.” Their interests are joined. As is often said as a wedding, “You’re joys and sorrows will be shared alike.” According to the Bible, their lives of active love lived for the each other should rise above the ups and downs of life. We’re called to love our spouses unconditionally, as God has loved us in Christ. We’re called to love each other (to take care of each other) as we care for ourselves. We must be reminded, exhorted and commanded to love in this way, which says something about us and the nature of man. Doesn’t it? We’ve chosen to live with one person from all the people who inhabit the planet – because we love that person – and we still have to be reminded, exhorted and commanded to love them. (And statistics and our experience prove the necessity of such divine insistence.) But here is what I want to consider – the “feeling” of love by married people. We know that feelings come and go, and that we can’t trust them to govern our choices. We know that acting in loving ways will often lead to loving feelings, and we know that feelings can be valuable to us in understanding ourselves and even what God is saying to us. But I’m talking about something else. I’m talking about how either spouse’s “feeling” love for the other is often conditional or contingent. It’s counter to instinct (It’s instinctive for me to love myself.), and it’s counter to the nature of things in a fallen world (which again is for me to focus on myself and my needs). I suppose this is just two ways of saying the same thing.

And this is where my love for my sons, and your love for your child or children come in. It seems to me that this love is quite different. I don’t have to be exhorted or commanded to love my sons, in fact the Bible assumes I will. Parents just love their children. (Take this like a Biblical proverb. Of course there are exceptions, but this is a generally true and reliable guide.) You might have a child who merits a bumper sticker proclaiming his greatness, or one you’d rather not talk about because he’s in rehab again or prison. You might have a child that is your best friend, or idolizes you, or you might have one that won’t come for holidays and wants nothing to do with you. No matter. In either case, if you’re a typical parent, you love that child more than anything in the world.

A parent’s love for a child differs from married love in just that way – and I’m talking now about active love (doing loving things) and feelings of love. A parent’s love isn’t conditional or contingent. There is nothing your child could do that would make you stop loving them. It’s not something we struggle to do, or need to be reminded to do. It’s something we can’t stop doing. Our acts of love flow out of these feelings of love – feelings that are rooted in instinct and the nature of things. (Even my natural inclination to put myself first, and my sinful selfish egocentrism fail to overcome this love of mine.) In almost all cases, parents love their children no matter what. It’s that simple. When the Bible says “as a Father has compassion on his children” it’s appealing to this obvious reality.

When I try to explain my love for my children in words, it sounds like this: I love them so much that it hurts. Probably until they have children of their own, and maybe not even for a long time then, they can’t even fathom it. I would do anything for them, including gladly giving my life. They mean more to me than anything in this world. I know I will always love them like this, and that nothing they could ever do or choose to be could change that. I wish them only the best, and one of the most painful things for me as their father, is wanting so much more for them and not having the ability to help them.

Well, this is the epiphany I mentioned earlier. It dawned on me. This painful love of a parent for his child is the way God loves me. I think this is the most powerful analogy that he makes – the parent-child analogy – not the husband-wife analogy to describe his love for us. (I’m aware that the church is the bride of Christ, and that God married his chosen people Israel, but the way these analogies work is different, and I don’t think they help as effectively with the question I’m raising.)

Am I “feeling” the love of God for me? I can think about Christ’s laying down his life for me. I can meditate on the significance of the bread and wine in the Last Supper. I can think about how fearfully and wonderfully made I am, or about how the Biblical story is all about him being “God with me” – and in this age, “God in me.” I can meditate on all these truths (and more!), and I should. But for me, what hits me on the most visceral level, is thinking that the way I love my sons is the way God loves me. There is no ought, no altruism, no struggle in that love of mine. It’s an incredible, unparalleled force of nature in the truest sense – and I mean that in this way, that God has created me in such a way that I will love my sons. That I will love my sons. And why would he do that? For the survival of the race, no doubt, but more importantly, so that I would understand his love for me. My feelings of love for my four sons reflect God’s desire that I would fathom my heavenly father’s love for me. That’s why I’m that way. God loves his children. I’m created in his image. I love my children. My feelings of love for my children – those instinctive, most powerful of all feelings – mirror how God feels about me. To this I can relate. This actually does help me to “feel” it and understand it in a unique way – and in a new way, maybe I can believe. It makes sense to me. I know these feelings of a parent. I know how powerful they are. I know how indestructible they are. They are “loyal love” feelings. These are God’s feelings towards me.

So, I’m “feeling” it more now, and each time I look at, or pray for, or think about my children, I’ll be feeling it again.