how faint a whisper

glimpses of God in a heaven-crammed earth


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grace

“Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in paradise.”
Luke 23:43

Oh, the theological weight that has stood on these words! God’s economy is not even, measured, or fair by any worldly standards. No, instead the condemned sinner, literally in the very act of being deservedly punished for his crimes, appeals to a grace nothing in the history of the world or his life gives him context to understand. This wasn’t how it worked. Myth and religion and culture all said basically the same thing: life is all about reimbursement. Give to the gods, to the emperor, to the earth, respect or money or worship or performance, and if you’re lucky you will get back what you deserve. There was no happy ending, hardly even a best case scenario. As human, you do what you can to please powers so far beyond you, and hope to land on the side of better than most. Almost every culture had a story of the fall, but redemption had not entered the scene. Can you see it? Can you see the necessity of God’s first action, the irresistible drawing of grace? This man did not deserve to figure out the truth. A lifetime on the scales stacked against him; despised, no doubt, by the state which was killing him; probably unknown at all to the church, or, if he used to be known, even more hated for whatever this great failure he bore was. As unlikely a convert as Christ was a Savior.

It makes me wonder about his life. Had he heard of Jesus, finding himself drawn by something inexplicable to groups that were talking about Him in the market? Did he hunch in the back of the crowd on the shores of the sea, or the side of the mount, as Christ spoke His mysterious truth? Was he overwhelmed in those moments by a longing so strong it began to crack the edges of his hopelessness? Was he afraid to let go? Afraid to be disappointed again, and so he shook off the impossibility of hope with the brutal reason of reality? Have you seen my life? Perhaps he thought. There is nothing in it, or in this world, that whispers the possibility of a Savior. Have you seen what I’ve done?

It was a relatively small area, and I often wonder how far Jesus’ name had spread. But who knows? Maybe this man hadn’t been paying attention, too busy trying to survive to dream. Maybe this is the first he saw Jesus, the first he even heard of Him. Maybe Christ’s posture of humility was so different, so jarring, that even in the man’s despair it caught his attention. Maybe, as he watched the mockers, something tugged at his heart: What if it’s true? It can’t be…but what if it is? What if life is possible, even for me?

Whatever the story, however long it had been being written, hope had found its way in. Faith had found its way in, from the God to whom no doors are closed. Grace had found its way in, from the God to whom no soul is unreachable. And however much that man knew, the extent of his faith is not what merited Christ’s response. Hanging on that cross, completely without reason to believe, as the source of this hope hung dying next to him, he did the only thing any sinner needs to: he turned. He made the slightest, faltering step and grace exploded onto the scene: vast, unmeasured, boundless, and free.

Without a doubt, he did not fully understand the truth of who Christ was. Do any of us? But somehow, inexplicably, he had faith enough to believe that this man had a Kingdom. And he did understand the desperation of his own need, and from that appealed to the greatest hope he could imagine at that moment; Lord, remember me.

And knocking aside the scales of this man’s life, Christ spoke the only weight that matters: grace.

I think He said it immediately, and I think He said it with unmeasurable joy: Today, you will be with me in paradise.

Christ died first, Scripture tells us, while the soldiers had to break the legs of these other two. I wonder what the rest of those remaining hours were filled with for this thief on his own cross? Did his faith falter, seeing the One who promised silent and still? Did he begin to wonder, terrified as the earth grew dark and shook with quakes, who it really was that he had just appealed to? How did hope endure in those few moments before his inevitable death? I think it was the grace of Christ’s words that he clung to, the promise of eternity, offered the same to all who believe in His name. But this man – this man, in all his suffering – had a severe mercy very few get to cling to, for he knew how long he had to wait. Perhaps he whispered it to himself with every agonizing breath: Today. Christ said today. Today I will be with Him in paradise.

In Christ’s words to this man, whose name we do not even know, we see the unalterable truth that no matter who, no matter what, no matter how long has gone before or how long is left to wait for paradise; His grace is sufficient.


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compassion

“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.”
Luke 23:34

I doubt these would have been my first words.

In fact, I know they would not have been. I know, because even now, in the midst of my comfortable, insulated, well-fed and well-loved life, where what often feel like sins against me are more likely just inconveniences; even now, these are not my first words. They are not often words that arise naturally at all, and especially when the injury is of any significance. Of course they knew what they were doing, my wounded heart cries! And even if not, the pain doesn’t lessen. How can forgiveness be His very first word after betrayal?

But of course forgiveness is not an absence of pain, an erasure of betrayal, or an act of the will. Forgiveness is a Divine act, a heaven touching earth moment, a choice of redemption in brokenness, the truth of eternal relationships within temporal ones. And forgiveness is only possible when our heart has sat at the foot of this Cross and known itself seen in the dying compassion of Christ.

Isn’t it interesting that Jesus does not say “I forgive them, Father?” Instead, He appeals to the Father: please! Forgive them. Is this because Christ was somehow unable to do the forgiving Himself? Never. He is in the midst of proving by His very act of sacrifice the cost and extent of His forgiveness. But maybe in the humanity of Christ’s cry we see a glimpse of another truth: that forgiveness is one of the hardest things we are called to do, for it asks for an act as well as a feeling. It starts with sacrifice, then demands compassion, and we are capable of neither without a pleading appeal to the Father.

Sacrifice. Sacrifice was the means to forgiveness in the history of God’s relationship with His people, ever since that moment when God killed to cover Adam and Eve’s shame. Christ knew His role, and these words are a prophetic appeal of compassion to the heart of God from the One who knows He is about to change everything about how humanity can reach it. Does the Father need reminded? No, but the ones nailing Christ’s wrists to the cross did. The ones mocking from the ground and from his side did. This cry came from One who knew fully His role as sacrificial Lamb, undoubtedly, but it also came from the relational, time-bound heart of a man, and it is perhaps that example that pierces me most deeply. In that moment of ultimate physical suffering and alone-ness, Christ did not turn inward, but looked out and saw those around Him. Father, even these! His compassion cries. They are blind to the meaning of this moment, to the truth of who I am. Oh Father, is it possible? Can this sacrifice be for even these? The aching compassion of the truest love this world has ever seen breaks my heart in its example of attentiveness. In His moment of deepest injury, of betrayal none of us will ever know, even then, Christ was pleading for others.

Every day, the Lamb sits on His throne and points to the eternality of that moment over and over and over again. Every day, for my soul, Christ turns to the Father, saying, “Father, forgive her. She knows not what she does.” And God looks at Christ, dying on that cross, and me lost in that shadow, and says to me, I do, beloved, I do.

May we never diminish Christ’s compassion by disbelieving our seen-ness; our belovedness. May we never be ashamed to everyday give evidence of our need for the cross. May we never forget that we dwell within the relational heart of Christ, with His strength beyond our own for all that it asks of us. And may we respond with willingness to the truth that mostly, what is asked of us in this Cross-shadowed life is the everyday dying of a thousand deaths: deaths to myself, and deaths to others. Sacrifice for the sake of relationship, compassion as the fruit of love.


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Last Words

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A Good Friday Tenebrae service is my favorite of the church year. It’s an ancient tradition which has taken different shapes but consistently features the extinguishing of candles throughout the course of the service, usually ending in full darkness and silence. It’s not a tradition I grew up with, however, so I remember distinctly the first time I sat in a Tenebrae service, visiting a friend for Easter weekend. As both the lights and the mood disappeared further into darkness, and the noise of appointments and travel and roasts in the oven faded slowly in the lingering echo of the Scriptures, I did not merely remember that Good Friday historical moment, I felt it. I felt, for maybe the first time, the sorrow-weight and glory-weight of those hours on the cross. I felt that it was right to bear it tonight.

As I sat there, throats cleared and chairs squeaked until finally, after only an anxious minute or two, the first few people got up to leave, and a relieved multitude followed quickly. Within a few minutes more, there were only a handful of us left. I sat there wondering how long they would let me stay; let me sit in this silence that shut out all else that was less important in life, which of course was everything. I wanted to be with Christ in that moment just a little longer. I probably could’ve out-lingered the churches’ welcome and the insubordinate part of me smiled a little wondering what the altercation of asking someone to leave a time of reflecting on the passion of the Lord might look like. But of course that wasn’t the point, as the reality of our lives is that we must carry the passion of the Lord out, finding out what remembrance means in the noise, movement, brokenness, and joy of everyday life with everyday sinners and saints.

But for one night, it’s good to linger a bit. We don’t naturally do so, not merely because of the silence, but because in our tension-smoothing culture we are much more comfortable focusing on the morning of Easter. We are more comfortable with Christ triumphant, seated at the right hand of the Father, interceding for us. It is good and right to rejoice that we live always in the sunrise of Easter, but we miss an unspeakable wonder when we rush through the night that allowed for that sunrise. It is also good and right to remember that Christ on the cross, broken and bleeding, was even in that very moment triumphant, completing the most intimate and ultimate intercession for us. And that of course is why we have Lent and Holy Week and Good Friday services; this season of confession and brokenness; so that we remember.

The modern Protestant adoption of Tenebrae services has usually shifted from reading the traditional Psalms of the Catholic hours to the reading of Scripture passages that specifically recount the passion of Christ. At times, even more specifically, the service focuses just on the seven statements of Christ from the cross that the Gospel writers give us. I don’t know all the history behind that shift, but I wonder if a part of it has to do with lingering. In the sweeping arch of Scripture, the crucifixion narratives are so relatively short, yet they are the story’s defining moment. How can these words of Christ draw us into further understanding of that moment? What do they show us about His heart?

These are the questions I have found myself lingering in during this Lenten season. Several weeks ago I first listened to a new song by Andrew Peterson called Last Words (Tenebrae). The song consists solely of these seven last statements of the cross, building on top of each other like a round, then slowly fading out again in the style of Tenebrae. It is simple and haunting and moved me to tears. There was something that caught me in all those words in one place, played on top of each other as if capturing one extended moment; something about the unfathomable relational depth of the heart of Christ. In a year when Advent struck me anew with the powerful humanity of the Incarnation, this seemed like an appropriate following meditation for Lent, though I did not seek it out. I found myself singing phrases of the song over and over again as I went about my day, lingering not only in their theological significance, but also in what they have to show us about the core of being human. For if greater love has no one than this, that they lay down their life for their friends, Christ in those moments on the Cross demonstrated not only the perfection of Divine love, but also the fullness of human love, wedded in one as only He could do. I am a lover of words, and if everything Christ did and said was intentional, why these words? What do they say about His love? Why did they deserve his labored breath?

Out of these questions, then, came reflections. Not answers or treatises or complete statements of theological significance, but a few captured thoughts of how my heart is being shaped from lingering with each of these last words of Christ. Reflections that contain a little bit of my repentance and wonder and hope from glimpsing how these seven words show us the compassion, grace, provision, need, pain, authority, and submission of the relational heart of Christ in those last moments.

I’ll share these reflections one a day through this Holy Week, and pray that what may be few, faltering words will be used to draw us further in wonder and praise of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who, “for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, scorning the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. For consider Him who endured such hostility from sinners against Himself, lest you become weary and discouraged in your souls.” (Heb 12:2-3)

For consider Him. Linger with me?


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Incarnation

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I missed an exit and hit the steering wheel in frustration. The irony of that moment was not quickly lost: on my way to a personal, silent retreat for the weekend I was painfully demonstrating my need of it. The past week had personified freneticism, with calendar events and responsibilities running over and into each other to the point where my brain couldn’t stop whirling through the future long enough to attend to the present moment. And attentiveness is so crucial for meaning, so days ended without feeling like I had done anything, much less done it well.

As I drove I simultaneously processed through my frustration with the fact that I had scheduled this retreat so late in the semester and my incredible gratefulness for that fact, knowing this was precisely the moment it was most needed. Knowing it is for these moments that discipline exists. Knowing that my clench on my self-sufficient abilities to get it all done was becoming dangerously tight, and I needed to release control.

Silence and solitude, especially in our modern day culture, is so much about control. How will it get done if I’m not doing it? How is this remotely productive?  Does this experience mean anything (in a culture of meaning via affirmation) if I’m not sharing it? And, when we dig a bit deeper: what if God doesn’t show up? What am I without words, without roles, without relationships, without external purpose? What if, in the removal of distractions I lose not only my ability to control my world but my ability to control my own emotions? What might I feel in the slowness, and what might it cause me to say to God?

As I got further from the city, even the very landscape submitted to the decrease of control. Six lanes became four, then two, then shoulders disappeared and double yellows became more like suggestions on curves, hemmed in by mountain and field. I drove through dusk and the lights got less and less frequent, but more striking. The combination of the earliness of winter darkness and the coming of Christmas made for lit up houses around bends, light spilling softly from living rooms and Christmas trees in windows, or not as softly from giant inflatable santas. I had Christmas music playing in the background of my slowly unraveling thoughts, a word or phrase of familiar songs inserting itself into the landscape’s reminders. I pulled into the driveway of the tiny house I had rented for the weekend and, as promised, the owner had left a light on: the only light in view, breaking through the darkness.

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. Isaiah’s words have been dear to me at Christmas for several years now. As I carried my bags in from the car, set things in order, turned on the fake “fireplace” heater, and settled down into the one chair in this simple, 10×20 space, the word came almost instantly: Incarnation. Simple, common, almost expected at this time of year, it was like I was hearing it for the first time. The light breaking through darkness of Isaiah’s words was metaphorical and spiritual, but it was also concrete, physical, and desperate. Christ’s birth is not just the fuzzy, warm light of ethereal hope stirring hearts, but the life-saving lighthouse or lantern to the utterly lost and despairing. The light became real and entered the world. Christ became man. Incarnation.

The Incarnation is the greatest meaning-maker this world has ever known. God came: Into this stuff, into this mess, into this food and sand and sore muscles and star-filled nights and children’s laughter and hay in a manger. He came: not with disgust, and not with resignation, but with zeal. With joy! With light bursting through cracks that cannot hold it back. And in that He proclaimed that this life matters so much I’m going to live it. I’m going to taste it and feel it and walk it and live it…thirty three years of it in twenty-four hour days, just like you do. Learning to wait, just like you must. Learning to pay attention, just like you must. Living open to the world so I could die for you who are made of it. He could have done it another way. He could have saved us and taken us out, but He doesn’t. What does that say about the meaning and the wonder of the stuff our lives?

God’s abundance does not come through His gifts, it comes through His life, and it is made known in the transformation of the ordinary stuff of our lives and our world. Five loaves feed five thousand. Water becomes wine. “The ordinary stuff in all its scarcity” (Walter Brueggemann) becomes enough. Becomes more than enough. Think of the miracles of God: so many of them are scarcity to abundance miracles. The manna came. The widow’s flour and oil did not run out. The people ate and were filled. And Pentecost: one of the greatest miracles of abundance, when His presence descended to dwell with each of his children. To be with us always, even to the end of the age. This incarnate God, still in our life, is everyday transforming its scarcity.

I sat in the quiet and the dim and let the questions roll with the tears. It is hard sometimes, in the scarcity of the not yet to believe that the abundance of the already is also here. Sometimes I am afraid it will never feel like enough. But the Incarnation means that God Himself redeemed human anxiety in the garden and human longing in His tears. He does not condemn my longings. He is not afraid of my fears. He knows. He lived the scarcity that sometimes is our human lives. To know Him better, I do not need to escape this life. I need to see its ordinary abundance.

The next morning I climbed a mile up the dirt road beside the cabin. At the top of the hill I turned to face the field in front of me, sloping down to trees and rising to larger hills beyond. I stopped and stood, the quiet nearly ringing in my ears. A bird called, tires crunched on gravel somewhere far down in the valley, some sort of machine rumbled to life on the farm I had just passed. But mostly, it was quiet. A tear slipped down my cheek with no concrete source or explanation, almost as if it was squeezed out simply by the weight of that silence. The wind blew cold on the wetness on my cheek, but I didn’t brush it away. I looked closer to the field in front of me. Tumbles of grass mixed with dried up flowers. The goldenrod and the Queen Anne’s lace stood straight up from it all, brittle and dry. At first glance they were simply dead, but in a longer gaze, still fifty different shades of brown for which there are no names. The wind blew gently and they made no resistance and no noise, just quiet bending response. How often, I wondered, does the Spirit blow in my life as He has in these few days, but I miss it because I am not still enough to hear? Am I willing to bend in response, the slightest of movements evidencing my release of control?

I stood there until I got too cold to linger more. I don’t know how long it was. All it cost was time, which for once wasn’t my measure. It was long enough, though, that when I started walking again, my stiff muscles cried in protest. But the remedy for stiff muscles is to use them – to gently work them back into remembrance of action and discipline long known; of what they were created for. So I pushed further on, then down the hill, in physical rhythm affirming that the Lord had spoken in the stillness, and I wanted to work it into remembrance throughout this Advent season. I want the reality of His Incarnation to change not simply one day, or one season, but the whole of my life. If I believe in Christ’s companionship and abundance in the longings of scarcity, how does that profoundly change my waiting? If I truly believe that my God embodied full and perfect humanity, how does that change the honor and attentiveness and wonder I want to give this life that He has given me?

Two simple, quiet days in December at a tiny cabin in the woods framed the whole of Advent for me this year. And finally, we are here. This night where we remember the whole of earth poised to host the Poem. We remember doors thrown open to light and meaning and hope, to the presence of God in every astounding, intimate detail of our lives. Christ came and in that gave meaning to working muscles and tears, to dairy farms and wind and goldenrod and Queen Anne’s lace; to words and anxieties and longings. This Advent I needed to be reminded to quiet my life enough to see. Only then can the ordinary astound with wonder. And wonder proclaims glory, and glory ushers in shalom.

The people who live in darkness have seen a great light…
For unto us a Child is born.

He came. No scarcity can diminish that abundance. He came. And He is still here.

 

Walter Brueggemann’s Advent devotional, Celebrating Abundance, and Christopher Armstrong’s Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians, both read during this Advent, have greatly influenced and shaped my extended meditation on the Incarnation and this capturing of it.


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oneness.

One Sunday a few months ago I slipped in late to the back of church. Home just one day from five weeks in the woods, I felt like a stranger in this life, this city, these clothes. I didn’t even have the strength to sing for most of the service; just enough to stand and let the healing waves of the body wash over me like rain. To hear their voices lift high words that have been sung by the people of God for centuries…

Laudate omnes gentes, Laudate Dominum
Sing praises all ye people, sing praises to the Lord

In those words they proclaimed for me what I could not yet feel, reeling in communal loss: that this too was the body, and I must enter back into it again. But those voices also called me to responsibility, to remember why we gather. It was exactly in the grief of that moment, regardless of who knew or understood it, that I needed to be there, and I needed to stand with them, and I needed to praise.

It has been a season of a freshly stirred longing for eternity. And when that happens, most often I think it is because we’ve glimpsed it. It began for me in the mountains, in that intentional, short season of specific community, where we had to love our neighbor “because he is there,” as Chesterton said. In the midst of that loving, and teaching, and leading, I knew myself again. I glimpsed the shalom, the wholeness, of eternity, in that time the Lord had given me to join Him in redeeming. But it was always going to end, and in the pain of that ending, early that Sunday morning, I fled for comfort to the church. I fled for comfort not because my church is a place of rich known-ness: in fact, relationship building has been painfully slow. But because somewhere deep within I knew that what I was grieving in that moment was eternity glimpsed, and I needed to put myself in the space of remembrance. Remembering that while we’re here, we are not meant to do this alone. So we gather, as if to kneel in a posture of humility under that truth.

It’s an astounding thing, really, if you stop and think of it, that Christ called us first to oneness, in order that the world may believe. He called us to preaching and service, yes, to grace and to love, but also to oneness. And there are all sorts of other gifts that come from fellowship with believers, but none of them must overshadow the alter that sanctifies them – the God that gives them and says that even if none of them are true, even if I don’t know you and I feel as alone as I ever have, I’m called to stand beside you because it’s not about either of us. It’s about proclaiming the truth of eternity whether we feel it today or not, and praising the God who is the same today as He will ever be. It’s an act of defiant pilgrimage, responding to our culture’s idolatry of fulfillment through individual arrival to say that we’ve glimpsed a different end, and its hope is all-compelling. I’ve been chewing on that one for months now.

This Sunday, I slipped into church aching for eternity. I felt battered and weary by the contrast of reality with the promised redemption of all things. I felt beat down by brokenness, by the way we are capable of treating each other, by the battles of unfulfilled desire, by my own utter weakness. But I also came in immense hope, pleading for the church to be the community that it is meant to be. I came in my brokenness and desperation, but also, in the Lord’s grace, in the midst of a weekend of reminders that it is primarily in my need of others that I most often catch those glimpses of eternity. I glimpsed it on Friday night, as I sat with a friend and we spoke of the longing of not wasting time in the realness of conversation. I glimpsed it on Saturday, as I sat at a conference that challenged us to speak into unspoken spaces, for we’re not supposed to battle in them alone. And I glimpsed it that morning, as my pastor reminded us that in light of anything this week holds, we gather in the hope of a kingdom which cannot be shaken.

And then we came to the table, to that ultimate act of community and of remembrance. Remembrance not only of that which is past, but present and future, an eternity-glimpsing remembrance, a oneness-proclaiming gathering. Just as the people of Israel did, huddled together in their homes in the darkest night they had known, we eat together in the bold faith of a coming redemption.

We eat together because we need to be humbled, by kneeling side by side, to remember that we come to this table as equals.

We eat together because we need to be strengthened by the faith of others in the days we do not glimpse the promise which our eating proclaims.

And we eat together because the last prayer Christ prayed for us before dying for us was that we might be one, and in the striving for that oneness, we glimpse the way things have always been meant to be.

As my pastor ended his sermon yesterday, after whatever may come, this much will remain true: next Sunday morning we’ll gather once again in that space and around the world and praise Christ as Lord. We’ll call each other to remember that there is a feast coming that gives meaning to our lives, and that in that moment’s fullness, we will lack nothing. We’ll call each other to remember that until then, our brokenness pushes us to isolate, but we need each other. I needed to remember that this week. I needed to stand in the front of church, and place the bread in my mouth as we sang…

Every vow we’ve broken and betrayed
You are the faithful One
Starting from the garden to the grave
Bind us together, bring shalom…

So I stood there, and I cried.
For someday we will feast in the house of Zion.
And in the brokenness and the waiting and the ache, being with you helps me remember.


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hope

the waiting dim of advent felt especially dark this year.
the valley of the shadow of death was oh too real – some gone. some going. all of us not as strong as we think we are.
the world, and its news, felt weary. relentless.
and its Babel sounds, Babel grasping, Babel pride…exhaustively deafening.

our aching watchman-for-the-morning eyes, straining in the dark for that first glimpse of that first ray, felt like they could not stay open one moment more.
that pregnant pause as the conductor raises his baton, then holds it, hovering in anticipation, felt unbearably long and impossibly silent.

then…

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in the land of the shadow of death, upon them a light has shined.
You have multiplied the nation and increased its joy;
…You have broken the yoke of his burden and the staff of his shoulder, the rod of his oppressor…
For every warrior’s sandal from the noisy battle, and garments rolled in blood,
Will be used for burning and fuel of fire.
FOR unto us a Child is born,
Unto us a Son is given;
And the government shall be upon His shoulder.
And His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of His government and peace
There will be no end…
To order it and establish it with judgment and justice
From that time forward, even forever.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this.”

The baton drops. The triumphant concerto rushes through the room. The glowing orb of sun breaks the horizon line like the tension releasing last drop of water that pushes it all over the edge. God, Incarnate, floods the world with light.

There it is: hope.
the weary world rejoices.

The Word of the Lord. The Word, the Lord. Thanks be to God.


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enough.

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Last night I realized that I’ve been slapping God in the face.

It’s a harsh metaphor, perhaps. But that was how strongly I felt it.

I was at Bible study and we were talking about the blessings that are ours in Christ. Righteousness. Freedom. No condemnation. Redemption. Eternal glory. Verse after verse after verse…”for those who are in Christ…yours in Christ…in Christ.” And then the question was posed: which of these do you find the hardest to accept? And in the few minutes of silence that followed, I realized my first answer wasn’t on the list:

“No good thing does He withhold from those who walk uprightly…”

No good thing does He withhold. It’s true. It’s just as much a promise as all those others. And struggling to believe it, or flat out choosing not to, is in some ways the greatest insult of all. Because in doing so I look at this list…this incredible, undeserved, overflowing list, and I say, yeah…I get all that. I accept it. I’m thankful for it. But it’s not enough.

Enough.

It’s like I’m weighing His gifts as if they’re an offer on the table. In the ultimate arrogance, I lean my chair back on two legs, eyeing it, considering… “yeah, that’s pretty good, but can you throw in this one thing more?” It’s a game for control I’m playing with myself, all the while failing to realize I have no leverage whatsoever, nor anything to counter-offer or barter. A pile of filthy rags. And not only that, but the great irony is that I’ve already accepted the gifts. In fact my very life depends on them. By all rights, my greedy demand for more should be met with a furious withdrawal. But God’s not playing by the rules, to my eternal gratefulness, and He is leaving the table with a different response. “It’s yours.” He says. “And trust me, I’ve counted it. I’ve held nothing back and I’ve left nothing out. It’s enough.”

Oh and yes, you are in Christ. All this is yours because you are in Christ. You are Christ’s…and Christ is Mine.

It reminds me of Abraham and Isaac. It may be one of the most important stories in the Bible, but it’s also hard, and often the question arises: how can a loving God possibly ask someone to sacrifice their son? There are two truths we must let shape this question and its answer, or we’re at risk of misunderstanding the whole story. First, God didn’t ask Abraham to sacrifice his son; He asked him to be willing to. He asked him to be willing, and to execute that willingness through action all the way to the point of sacrifice. But we must not forget that this story ends with a Ram.

And here’s the other piece, and perhaps we don’t like it. Perhaps I don’t like it: God had every right to ask Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. We don’t often put those words together, talking about God’s “rights.” But we must shift our eyes sometimes from asking how a God of love could ask hard things of us to how a God of justice could not. It is every moment astounding that a perfect God, who deserves first our death, and sees Christ’s life instead, and then deserves all of our life in response, could give and give and give of blessing. That He does not rise up in impatience against our whimpering attempts to pretend we still hold onto the rights of anything at all. That He does not explode in anger at our vain self-righteousness to think we sit across the table as a fair player in the game. The truth is that God has the right to ask absolutely anything of us in this life, any depth of sacrifice, and it will not match what He has already given. That is the truth. The grace is that He usually asks so gently. Again and again until we finally hear, or listen, and, like Abraham, give willingly.

Yeah…back to Abraham. Just two days ago I read those astounding words about Abraham’s willingness. “[Abraham]…in the presence of Him whom he believed…contrary to hope, in hope believed.” Abraham lived in a world where no one had been raised from the dead. No one, ever. Despite how difficult we may find it to believe today that being raised to life again could ever happen, we have historical proof that God is able to do so. Abraham didn’t have that proof. But he believed anyway. And can you think of a more ridiculous thing to believe in without proof? Andrew Peterson captures what must have been the aching heart of Abraham so powerfully in his words…

“And even if you take him, still I ever will obey.
But Maker of this mountain, please, make another way.
Holy is the Lord, Holy is the Lord,
and the Lord I will obey.
Lord, help me, I don’t know the way.”

Abraham’s willingness did not come from a heart without a longing for another way. And His belief wasn’t based on the feasibility of the promise, it was based on the character of the One who made it. And that knowledge was enough.

Enough. It’s a misleading word in English, actually. We can play it off to mean simply “sufficient.” Enough for needs to be met and that’s all. But Scripture uses multiple words to make sure we don’t misunderstand: No good thing withheld. Fullness. Abundance.

Have you ever walked on a forest trail just after the rain, when the branches are so heavy with moisture they droop over the path and fall on you from above? Or have you made your way through a field of tall grass thick with early morning dew? You can’t help but get wet. It’s impossible to avoid. Your shoes are soaked and the branches use every slightest brush as an excuse to shower down wetness on you. “Your paths drip with abundance,” Psalm 65 says. They drip with it. It’s unavoidable. To be in Christ is to have immeasurable abundance of blessing, even in the driest of deserts.

John Piper, in an incredible sermon called “Getting to the Bottom of Your Joy,” re-tells a parable of John Newton’s about a man on his way to a faraway city to collect a huge inheritance. After weeks of journeying, just a mile outside of the city, the wheel falls off his chariot. And instead of running down that road, doing anything to get to that city and the inheritance, the man sets off begrudgingly on foot, all the while grumbling and crying out to anyone who will listen, “My chariot is broken! My chariot is broken!” What? In light of what awaits him, who cares? And so Piper says… “You’re just this far from home, right? This life is called a vapor’s breath. You’re that close to your inheritance. You really are. It’s that close and then forever…why would you need to have it now?

Oh Lord, forgive me. Here’s the truth:

If my chariot wheel is broken, it needed to be. And that is a good thing.
If it isn’t fixable, I needed to walk. And that is a good thing.
If I never have a chariot at all, or if I never get to travel through exotic places in it on the way, or if people never stop and take notice of it, or if I am never very good at driving…

…or if I just abandon this chariot metaphor altogether…

If I have, it is good given. If I lack, it is nothing withheld.

No good thing does He withhold from those who walk uprightly. There is no nuance to hide behind in those words. I either believe it to be true because of the character of the One who said it, or I don’t. I either submit to His right to ask for my life, or I don’t. I either redefine my understanding of good, or I don’t. And the longing-yet-believing and Him-taking-me-giving may leave me with some tension of reality that will not always seem like enough, but it is. It is enough.

Really we don’t need much, just strength to believe
There’s honey in the rock, there’s more than we see
These patches of joy, these stretches of sorrow
It’s enough for today, it’ll be enough tomorrow
-Sara Groves