Rest

 

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.


Photo by Tucker Good on Unsplash

 

 

Be Still

 

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.


Photo by Shane Stagner on Unsplash

 

 

Beautiful Creatures

I cannot get away from the idea that life is an expression of God’s beauty and that his most beautiful work is our very lives. It continues to cast reflections upon my heart and mind as I go about my day.

I made mention of this briefly in my last post, but I must elaborate. Two weeks ago, the thought struck me that the words I write are sacred, but I realize now it goes much deeper: Everything I do is sacred. All that I say and do matters: All that you say and do matters. This is because, from Heaven’s perspective, all things matter.

Every star in the Universe is known by name. The very number of hairs on your head are numbered. Every tear you shed is collected by God; every thought you think is known before it is said. And you and I: We were created to be a reflection of His beauty.

I really hope to convey this idea without it becoming in the minds of my readers yet another “have to” in the course of life. We do not “have to” find a way to reflect God’s beauty; this essay is not a “have to” lesson.

With the events that have transpired in my life in the past several weeks, I realize I am way beyond “have to.” I am at the very heart of “need,” with an occasional wandering into “want” and “desire.” “Have to” is the farthest thing from my mind right now.

Which — if you ask me — is a very, very good thing. And I wish the same for you. For there is something precious about life that has nothing — and I mean nothing — to do with “have to.” Life, if you are willing to accept it, has everything to do with “need”, “want” and “desire.” That is, It is about what we, as human beings, ultimately need. And more and more I realize it is about coming before God and pouring our hearts out before Him with all that we want and desire. We were simply not created for obligation; we were created for passion.

Jesus was asked, “What is the greatest commandment?” And he answered, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matthew 22). The interesting thing about this commandment that we often overlook is that it is absolutely impossible to fulfill it by adopting a life of obligation. I cannot oblige my way into love. I can only fall in love.

And when I fall in love, I am not thinking about “have to” at all. I am thinking about another person, and how I can lay down my life for that person. I am thinking about spending every moment with that person. I am thinking about opening my heart wide, coming to know them just as I wish to be known. This is love.

So when I think about the fact that everything you and I say and do matters and and that we were created to be a reflection of His beauty, I am not thinking about obligation; I am thinking about love. I am thinking about being loved, and being in love. And I am thinking how that is possible with God because of Jesus demonstrating to us the greatest act of love the world has ever known.

That by humbling himself and becoming flesh and willingly taking all my sins upon Himself — taking my place to die on a Cross that I might be found innocent before God the Father — He demonstrated a love so profound that every other expression of love we see in this life is but a dim reflection.

I cannot help but think of the woman in the Bible who poured out an alabaster jar of precious perfume upon Jesus’ head and washed his feet with her tears. Professor Brian S. Chan of Biola University is quick to point out three things Jesus says in response to this. He says, first of all, that this woman has done this in preparation for His burial. He also says that wherever the Gospel is preached, what she has done will also be told. Most importantly, He says this woman has done a beautiful thing.

When we are in love, we are inclined to do beautiful things. And if I think, “I am afraid I am not in love with God,” then I must recognize this is not a deficiency but an opportunity. For we love by first being loved. “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4). We love by coming to know the God who is love, whose love is unfathomable, whose mercy is inexhaustible. We love not by trying to love but by falling in love.

And when we do, we cannot help but love in return. We become beautiful creatures. And though it may not be our goal, the world takes notice.


Photo by Xuan Nguyen on Unsplash

Artistic Expression

Last night I attended a conference for Christian artists: Painters, dancers, writers, even basket weavers (I kid you not — and world renowned). Earlier in the day, Jesus said something to me that was one of those things that sounded ordinary but was quite extraordinary. He said, “Your words are a prophetic act.” In the Revival (Charismatic) culture, everything these days is a “prophetic act.” You here the term so often it has lost all or most of its meaning.

But God was telling me something important about my gift (and I will add here, yours as well). He was saying that the very words I write bring the presence of God — bring, as we like to say in revival circles, Heaven to Earth. This was important to me not because God was validating my gift but because He was telling me that what I write has inherent value regardless of what purpose or value I subscribe to it. Art, in other words, does not need to have a purpose; the fact that it exists is purpose enough.

For years I have struggled with how this gift works. Many of you may not know I am a writer of fiction and that it in fact is my primary gift. And the one thing that has always been self-evident to me is that in any form of artistic expression, freedom is paramount. But it is real difficult expressing any artistic gift you possess with freedom when you are trying to make sure it has a “purpose.” How is this going to reach the lost? How will this advance the Kingdom?

The answer is rather simple yet profound: Our very act of artistic expression, conceived in freedom, is itself an advancement of the Kingdom. The creativity that God has placed within us, and wishes to release through us, is not neutral. God told me during worship last night, “Do not underestimate the power of art. Do not underestimate the power of your words.”

We may agree, but this is a bit of a paradigm shift for many in the church who feel everything should have an overt purpose. To say artistic expression matters and should have a place is to say something deeply theological: That we weren’t put on this planet to simply save the lost or “advance the Kingdom” through preaching and the latest local church initiative to make Christianity seem really appealing to others. (Or worse, to try to get our art to explicitly do the same, all of which is a hopeless form of manipulation). Rather, our very lives are a work of art, not an effort to advance the Kingdom but the very expression of the Kingdom.

All of this took a great burden off my shoulders, for I realized I had been trying so hard to make this life work, it was destroying any semblance of art within me. It caused me to write the following words, which I hope bless you:

My life is not an act of futility or frustration; my life is an act of worship.


Photo by Alex Holyoake on Unsplash

 

 

Life is Beautiful

 

My five-year-old granddaughter Anna, who was close to my wife Catherine (who, as many of you know, passed away unexpectedly this month), was over with her mom and dad to celebrate the college graduation of my daughter (her aunt). There were about thirty people at the house and this house is not big, so there was lots going on.

Suddenly, Anna says to me from across the room, “Grandpa! I see something in this house that was not here before!” And with that, she walks over to an end table beside me where the guest book and brochure from Catherine’s memorial service had been placed on display. The brochure had Catherine’s photo on it.

“Yes, that’s Grandma,” I said. I waited to see what her response would be — and so did her dad, not far away. Several days before, Anna’s mom had explained to her that her grandmother had gone to be with Jesus in Heaven, and that God would surround her with other family members who loved her, and they would take Grandma’s place till we all saw her again. Anna had taken the news seriously but with surprising acceptance. But our journey through this loss has just begun, and today was a new day.

Anna studied the photo for a bit, then turned to her dad and said, “Isn’t today just wonderful?” And then she proceeded to take two flowers that had been attached to one of her aunt’s gift bags and place them carefully on the book stand, just above Catherine’s photo.

It has been a little over three weeks now since my wife Catherine passed, and as you might guess, many, many people who loved her and who love me have reached out and asked how I am doing. It has been difficult to answer with any form of honesty or credulity, not because I am too devastated to form the right response, but rather because of the opposite. How I, and my children, are doing has been a rich composite of many tears but also of unspeakable joy.

It has been characterized by unprecedented vulnerability and unexpected strength. It has been a tender marriage of both unprecedented grief and unfathomable grace. It has been a college graduation without mom here, but with sweet little Anna placing flowers next to her photo and declaring, for all the world to know, that this day, even with its sorrow, is just wonderful.

So my response to my loved ones, if it were a text message, would be simple and concise, amounting to four words: Life is still beautiful.


Photo by Jarl Schmidt on Unsplash