In the past several days God the Father has been taking me to a place past the point of words — or at least my ability to freely express them. I have regularly and literally been pinned to my chair (or bed, or floor) by the tangible presence of God in utter silence and tears. It has made penning a new blog post difficult. Continue reading “Faith is not a Statistic”
In the past several weeks I have found myself listening to a myriad of worship songs. In the process, those that have been most meaningful (life-changing actually) have come from Bethel Music.
And of those, interestingly enough, nearly all were songs with —as the movie industry likes to say — strong female roles. That is, the lead vocalist and worship leader was a woman.
Now I am in many ways rather orthodox in my view of men and women compared to what passes as modern views on gender roles. Put simply, I believe men and women are different, and they are created different. And that difference is, for lack of better words, by design and beautiful.
But I also believe women were created to lead. They simply lead differently. That is, when they enter the world of society (be it corporate America, church or otherwise), they do not lose their uniqueness.
By saying this of course I have touched upon the primal fear of our modern culture. We are really afraid if we recognize any differences between men and women, it will be used by men as basis for oppressing women. And so what we find is a desperation to claim, and portray, women to be just like men, and men just like women.
But uniqueness does not mean oppression. I hope we can slow down our modern brains long enough to recognize this. That is to say, women were not uniquely created by God to be oppressed, nor were they created to be men; they were uniquely created by God to be the full and complete expression of who they are.
I mention all this because in the modern climate of debate over women leadership, what has arisen within the revival church culture especially in the area of worship is a strong presence of women leading with the full expression of who they are. And to be honest, I am not sure any man could lead as they have led. And their contribution in this area has had a tremendous impact upon me personally in this season, so this is my tribute.
The Women of Bethel Music
I think of Gretzinger
Carrying the presence more than anyone can handle
Lit up like a Roman candle
Reckless as the love of God
Tearing God knows what darkened worlds apart
to take us deep into the Father’s heart
Or Helser, declaring a child of God
Am I: No longer slaves,
With an audacity — like Cooke — with David to go
Out beyond the shores into the tossing waves
Or Dimarco, who can tell
us there is a love hidden deep inside waiting
to be set free, a hope realized
And through it all to trust and let go
for they still know His name: The wind and waves
And no matter what my present situation: It is well.
And then there is Walker-Smith who reminds
Me how jealous God is for me:
His love like a hurricane, and all my regrets a tree
Which loomed so large but suddenly finds
No more root, cast into a drowning sea.
And McMillan — who among this lineup should
be included — who says You are good, good, good
Like a steady battering ram unending
Reminding us that when the night is holding on,
God is holding on harder still: All my fears rescinding
And Jobe, and Heiligenthal, and so, so many more,
Not least of which Johnson, who from the beginning
Her voice piercing the darkness like a punch to the gut
and for at least ten thousand reasons more —
I thank you. For through it all,
With uncompromising violent voice and song,
You have led us, led us, led us all:
Led us all along.
Can anything separate us from the love of God poured out for us through Christ Jesus?
For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8)
It does not appear to be so. It is interesting in the above passage that the Apostle Paul finds it necessary to mention that not even life can separate us. Perhaps he has in mind life as in the opposite of death, but I like to think he has in mind “life” as in the daily grind of life, that place where we experience it. Not even what we experience in life, both good and bad, can separate us from God’s love.
Which is an astounding thought. Don’t take this the wrong way, but in many ways I have felt my life to be a complete failure. I have accomplished much, but I also feel I have failed at life in the most significant way possible, according to the only perspective that really matters: I have failed to live a life pleasing to God.
And I have come to this realization in the daily grind of life, where it is experienced. There, I have learned what stuff I am made of. And I have discovered it isn’t pretty. Like the Apostle Paul, I discovered with no small degree of anxiety that “in me, there is no good thing.” But unlike Paul, it has been hard for me to be okay with that. How can anyone be okay with that?
Growing up, I was always told that as long as I did my best, that was good enough. That is a good personal philosophy that produces a great work ethic. But somehow it does not work so well when we turn to the spiritual life. There is something that happens when we compare our lives to Jesus, knowing He is our example, that makes the wheels fall off “at least I am doing my best.” When God opens our heart and we see our motivations for what they really are, doing my best seems to lose all meaning. Doing my best actually becomes part of the problem.
But this I feel is part of the process, and in fact the beginning of the solution. The journey with God — unlike any other task we face — is not one where we work for God but rather God works in us. He is repairing us. And that process is not so much Him quickly fixing whatever keeps us from doing the things that please Him as it is understanding — despite whatever real failure in our lives we encounter, whether in plain sight or hidden from view —we are just as pleasing to Him.
Processing failure, I feel, is a critical part of my journey with God. For there is one thing that can separate me from the love of God, and it is myself: Particularly how I perceive my own failures. Does my failure, in the particular or general sense, change how I feel about myself? Am I still deserving of the very best God has to offer? Is He still extravagantly generous toward me if I feel I have failed to keep up my end of the bargain?
This is where an overactive work ethic, with all its good, can get us into trouble. Excelling in life is good, and God desires us to live fully-functioning lives where we accomplish great things. Because this is how He has made us to function. But if our ability to function becomes the criteria for our right to be accepted and loved, things begin to break down. The way it works in God’s kingdom is that first we are loved and accepted, then we function. In fact, we only function as we were truly designed to function to the extent we know we are loved.
I begin then to realize what God is really working on is not my ability to achieve but my capacity to be loved, even (and especially) in my failure. Nothing can separate me from the love of God. And I suppose in the final analysis, not even myself. For God simply loves me too much to keep me on the shores of failure when, in truth, an entire ocean of His extravagant love awaits me.
I awoke this morning in Long Island. Our cousins were sweet enough to open their home to us as we, this week, celebrate a family reunion with Catherine’s side of the family. I have never been to their house and so my first order of business was to wake up before anyone else, of course, and explore every room in the house.
That may not exactly be true, but it is what I did — at least downstairs. And I had the assistance of the two or three cats who live here, and who were more than happy to oblige.
As I did so, I was struck by how peaceful it was. We West-Coasters tend to think New York is all about the city, and it is if you are in Manhattan. But escape just across the water and you find a different world, a small piece of Heaven nestled among trees: A place which despite the busy trappings of modern life has a memory long before you and I were born, let alone before the smartphone was invented, a place inviting you to rest.
I come from a long line of religious followers who believe devotion to God is anything but restful. On the contrary, it can be quite stressful: Making sure that the Creator of the Universe is happy with you. It may not be too stressful if you avoid Him in the hallways of life. But run into Him in a private room and things can be quite tense. You can wish you were someplace else.
And this can be true even in the “best” of church traditions. Some traditions of course seem to enshrine this distance, keeping God in a place of unrelenting holiness and us in a place of fearful and reverent devotion. But I am thinking of those traditions who have embraced the message of the Bible that God, in His holiness, actually chose to come close in mercy: Becoming a man and taking upon Himself the reason for the discomfort we feel in His presence.
For the church traditions I have in mind, “faith” is a big topic. All the blessings of Heaven are available to us through faith, and so a lot of emphasis is upon “having faith.” But more times than not, be it the way they have approached it or I have received it, “having faith” has been more stressful than the standard “fearful and reverent” devotion. If I am already having difficulty at the religious duty thing, I will certainly fail (trust me) at the faith thing.
But here is the amazing thing: God requires neither. Whatever act we feel we must do or moral quality we feel we must possess in order to feel perfectly comfortable in God’s presence, Jesus has provided. “God made him who knew no sin to be sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthains 5). He has made the private room comfortable.
The natural outworking of faith, then, is rest. It is not the solemnity of a cold cathedral instilling a sense of uneasiness, nor the tireless striving of faith-based Bible-believer attempting to “live by faith.” It is the quiet of a Long Island morning. It invites us.
Such rest causes me to see things differently, though nothing in the fabric of my circumstances has changed. I see beauty where I could not see it before: In the early sunlight, in the dew that covers the grass, in the birdsong — even in the cat that nuzzles up against my leg. I realize this beauty was made for my pleasure — for I am deeply loved.
And then something begins to happen — I cannot explain how. The polarity in me shifts from my fearful and futile efforts to reach God, to God’s inexhaustible ability to reach me. My heart, my mind, my body — my very circumstances are all candidates of His unfathomable love. And no matter where I am in life I realize: My life has just begun.
I awoke with the thought this morning, “Be still.” It comes from the oft-quoted verse, “Be still and know that I am God.” The full verse is:
Be still and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.” (Psalm 46:10)
So we can be still, because God is not remaining still. God is on the move, both on the earth and in our lives. Indeed, what causes us to lose our place of stillness is the fear that no one but ourselves is moving: That we are the only ones in charge of this operation, and if we do not do something about it, catastrophe inevitable.
And this feeling can come in all shapes and sizes. We need not be eyes-bulging and paranoid to be one who has lost our peace. Sometimes we can be quite accomplished. Or, we are not fearing big things, like death, but quite small things like managing a trip to the airport. Virtually anything can be a cause for lost peace.
The other day, I found myself in our sun room (which also serves as a place of prayer). The days leading up to that day, I had felt such a sweet, continuous presence of God upon me. But this particular morning, I seemed to be feeling nothing but the hard cold facts of my situation. I felt anxious and finally said to God, “I can’t do this” with tears. Immediately I felt God say, “I am at work; I am doing a deep work.” With that I lay down and fell asleep.
The Lord once said to my wife, “Do not underestimate the power of My comfort.” And the same I feel is true about God’s peace. When we lose His peace, we are not just irritable: We are vulnerable. We were never designed to take matters into our own hands and meet our own needs. It is counter to our true nature. We were made to partner with God in all we do. And when we break that bond (always because of lack of trust) we end up partnering with something else. And it is never good for us.
I think it is often difficult for you and me to understand being still because we do not realize God is at work and is always doing a deep work. We are told often what we must do to better our lives: There is a message broadcast constantly that implicitly assumes we are all alone and on our own. So when we try to practice stillness, it does not work.
But stillness is about realizing God is always at work. That Jesus chose us, that He began a good work, and He is bringing it to completion.
Often I find: The moments I am tempted to think God is not at work are those important moments in life when God is pushing up to the surface a thing in my life He wishes to heal. That is, the times I fear God is not at work are the times God is most at work.
At times I will feel God’s sweet presence and favor; at other times I may recognize God is bringing correction and healing to an area of my life. But there are other times — or shall I say other areas — where God’s work in me is so delicate that my response is not stillness but fear. And fear always leads to control. It may not feel like control to me. The area of my heart demanding control may have been with me for so long that control is unconscious. In those areas, it may seem to me God is nowhere to be found. But this is where He is doing His most profound work.
And this is where stillness is most powerful. For as we come to rest, we let God in. God will be exalted among the nations, He will be exalted on the earth.
And he will be exalted in those places of our hearts where we have long given up hope we can ever be rescued.