Mystery Incarnate

Over the past forty years of following Christ, I find the path behind me strewn with clarity. God is faithful. How could I have ever doubted? Yet when I am hedged in by difficult circumstances and unanswered questions, not knowing the end of my current story can feel lethal.

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The Fruitful Vacancy

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We live a lifetime of transitions. “Things end, there is a time of fertile emptiness, and then things begin anew.” I love the pairing of these two: “fertile” & “empty” – a productive, fruitful season of being vacant. We must learn how to navigate these transitional waters in our marriage journey.

We often describe this launching pad to change as a trial or a wilderness season. In our humanness, we just want it to end so we can feel good again and have tranquility in our lives. God sees the deeper purpose, working the faith muscle to build strength. A friend of mine once said, “God doesn’t pull me out of what He can perfect me through.” I have discovered over and over again that what God prizes is the interaction with my heart. One sign of maturity is when we prize intimacy, our encounters with God, higher than the end of the test.

Transitions are predictable, planned, and welcomed. They are also unpredictable, not planned, and traumatic; which is what I experienced in year twelve of our marriage. We had been on pastoral staff of a church for ten years and felt fruitful, comfortable, and content. (Does the word “pruning” come to mind?) Our three children, ages 8, 10, and 11, were integrated into the church family, had good friends, and we lived in a very nice, upscale parsonage. None of us desired to move. Unbeknownst to me, I was about to be initiated into a new adventure.

We were chosen to take the reins of a small church in a nearby city, whose pastor was retiring. It was challenging, as the church had suffered a failed building program, leaving them saddled with debt. One night after a board meeting at the new church they took us to see our proposed new living quarters. We went from “upscale” to “no scale!” It was pretty bad. The house had an oil burning furnace; we could see black soot on the furniture. The carpet was old and soiled and the odor was less than fragrant.

We decided to rent an apartment for a year while the church had the house remodeled. It was a major downgrade from our last house but it was livable; kind of cute actually, like a little cottage. My boys had a bedroom with a slanted roof, which had been an add-on to the back of the house. As they grew taller, we had to move their beds to the “short side” of the room. My daughter’s bedroom was the former exterior shed that was adjacent to the house. It was small, but enough for the essentials – bed, dresser, and guinea pig cage.

I know other guys in ministry whose wives would not have settled for such a scenario. But my beloved helped me to embrace the ending, endure the in-between time, and start afresh. Our new pastorate had its ebbs and flows like all churches do. The chapter ended after ten years when we turned over the reins of the church and went back to working regular full time jobs for the next four years. We were facing another ending.

Anne and I grieved the loss as our identities underwent change. People didn’t call me “Pastor Mike” anymore; we were not leading worship every week, which we both loved to do. Waves of vacancy beat upon our shoreline and it felt many times like our purpose was gone. On the sweet side, we spent the next four years just being “normal” people; husband and wife at the dinner table, no ministry talk. The circumstances became a new frame for our marriage portrait; we rediscovered the painting, the treasure of our friendship.

Further transition ensued a few years later with the death of my Dad, the last living parent between us. New beginnings must come, and with them – endings. So I’ve resolved to face the fertile emptiness when it comes. This I know – the waves will recede but the fruit remains.

Father of Lights

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It gets complicated; I understand. Being fatherless hurts; being fathered wrongly hurts too. I respect the wounds endured by children. And though it’s very, very hard at times, we must learn how to trust when God makes a promise.

Much of life is learning to trust in the Father of Lights – provider of every good and perfect gift. Salvation is the chief gift and the one by which we were born again, becoming “first-fruits” of his transforming power. His is the light that will never be eclipsed; in Him there is no shadow of turning. (James 1:17-18)

Writing to encourage believers to endure trials and suffering, James assures them that God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone. But we are tempted by our own evil desires, which give birth to sin and eventually to spiritual death. Do not be deceived is the warning; for the Father of Lights is full of nothing but, light. One chief component of Satan’s strategy is to wrestle us into a belief system where God cannot be relied upon.

The epic contest of light versus darkness requires the full participation of the army of God on earth. “Praise be to the Lord my Rock, who trains my hands for war, my fingers for battle. He is my loving God and my fortress, my stronghold and my deliverer, my shield, in whom I take refuge, who subdues people under me.” (Psalm 144:1-2) Even to connect with our loving God at a deep level can be an intense battle in and of itself. He trains our hands for war, in the midst of war.

Today, we have the tangible foretaste of light and glory, which serves as a constant reinforcement in the battle: “God…made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all surpassing power is from God and not from us.” (2 Corinthians 4:6-7)

Earthen vessels are fragile; jars break easily. Our weakness and life’s brevity serve as an aid to humility. “Lord, what are human beings that you care for them, mere mortals that you think of them? They are like a breath; their days are like a fleeting shadow.”  It is in this weakness that His strength is perfected. I am not invincible but God is.

One of the last promises in the New Testament assures us:  “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. He who was seated on the throne said, ‘I am making everything new!’” (Revelation 21:4-5)

Thank God for the measure of transformation we’ve experienced; what a gift! But there’s more. Many other gifts, each good and perfect, are coming down from above, as the Father of Lights – Abba Father – showers us with redemption in this world of shadows.

 

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The Remnant is Grace-Filled

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See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled. (Hebrews 12:15)

As a young boy I can recall my dad weeding our front lawn. He had this tool that no dandelion was a match against. Our lawn went from spotted yellow to all green. (Yes, I also learned to mow the lawn with a push mower, as in no power to turn the blades, much less self propelled!) Weeds have a tendency to take over a lawn or garden, don’t they? Once they spring up, the surrounding growth is at risk, unless someone intentionally removes them.

Obtaining the grace of God is the tool we must use daily to combat bitterness.

The best “bang for your buck”, getting good results that is, will be to attack bitterness on the front end, in its’ seedling stage. Otherwise, the roots become entangled with other roots and we’ll soon have a conglomerate of soul inhibitors to deal with. Common partners in crime with bitterness are resentment, sarcasm, and anger.

A distinctive element about tools is they are most effective when diligently used. That’s the meaning of the Greek word translated “see to it” in the verse above. It means “looking diligently” and is only used one other time in the New Testament, in First Peter: Shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight. (5:2)

What Peter is exhorting the elders to do for the flock, is what we need to do for ourselves – “self shepherding.” 

The destructive power of bitterness should never be taken lightly. It is one of the most difficult infections to heal in the body. Beware lest there be among you a root bearing poisonous and bitter fruit, one who, when he hears the words of this sworn covenant, blesses himself in his heart, saying, ‘I shall be safe, though I walk in the stubbornness of my heart.’ This will lead to the sweeping away of moist and dry alike. (Deuteronomy 29:18-19)

Bitterness is: failing to obtain the grace of God; walking in stubbornness. The Hebrew word used for “safe” is “shalom.” A false peace is established when one feels justified to remain bitter. This so called “peace” or “safety” can only be sustained by remaining focused on ways that we were offended and hurt. Refusing to forgive is a common “on ramp” to bitterness and will hinder the flow of grace.

Paul exhorted Timothy to be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. (2 Timothy 2:1) The Word made flesh, came full of grace of truth, and we have beheld His glory. John declares of Jesus: Of His fullness we have all received grace upon grace. (1:16) The literal meaning is grace taking the place of grace. Like the manna provided in the wilderness, we have new grace for each new day.

The testimony of the remnant will always be, “We have endured by obtaining the grace of God.”

Overcoming Weariness

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“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.” (Hebrews 12:1)

In my last post, “Left Behind”, I introduced the subject of the remnant. In the natural realm it reflects a reduction in size while in the spiritual realm, the remnant and its companion of pruning, is unto enlargement, not however without testing. The ability to endure, to not grow weary, is a key to being fruitful in the kingdom; to stay steady when our natural senses are in negative reaction.

To overcome weariness we must face and conquer the following three foes:

Isolation: we are “surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.” These include the transcendent “church of the firstborn” (12:23) as well as our fellow pilgrims, those with whom we walk in present community. Herein is the key: stay surrounded – be intentional to be in community.

Weights: these are not necessarily sinful but they hinder personal growth. A word picture I like is that of wearing  construction type work books, heavy and bulky, to run the fifty yard dash. They are not illegal, but they will weigh you down for sure. In my experience, most of these come from two areas: lifestyle choices and brokenness.

Lifestyle choices containing very little spiritual sacrifice, that heavily lean towards recreation, hobbies, etc… may not be a transgression against God, but they can slow the pace of spiritual growth to where the enemy gains a leverage against you, and hence it can weigh you down.

Brokenness in my understanding, are the wounds we’ve sustained along the way, especially from our childhood. While containing threads of sin, it is predominantly untilled ground, filled with seeds of falsehood, which inhibit our reception of truth.

The wonderful promises of rebuilding the ruins, found in Ezekiel chapter 36, include this one: The desolate land shall be tilled instead of lying desolate…so they will say, “This land that was desolate has become like the garden of Eden.” (verses 34-35). Surrender of this heart ground to the Fathers’ plow will require the support of community, namely because we’ve worked hard to protect ourselves from facing the pain of our brokenness.

Sin: Being accountable in community, as well as lightening the load of desolation and brokenness, will strengthen us in our fight again sin, which has a “clinging” effect from habitual practice. We cannot win the victory in subjective aloneness or heavily laden with weights.

Weariness will take its’ toll on the heart. It leads to discouragement and eventual resistance to God’s training (discipline). We wonder: “Is it really worth it? After all, nothing is changing.”

The remnant however, will find a way to tap into the grace of God. Otherwise, a greater trouble lies ahead: the root of bitterness.

(To be continued)

 

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“Left Behind”

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Just to clarify, I’m not talking rapture, I’m talking remnant. Our common understanding of the “remnant” from scripture is referring to that which remains after a storm, judgment, or purging. There are over five hundred occurrences in the Old Testament of various root words that relate to the “remnant.”

It was God’s choice to discontinue the narrative of ancient history and elect Abram, a remnant, a smaller group out of the larger group. A precursor to this was God’s mark of favor on the line of Seth, his being the only genealogy listed in Genesis. I’m honored to be a part of the “chosen ones” as Ephesians 1:4-5 so eloquently states of all believers: He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before Him. In love He predestined us for adoption as sons. 

The distinction of the smaller group became clearer with Abraham’s grandson Jacob. Through a supernatural encounter, God changed his name to “Israel.” Jacob is the father of the twelve tribes. Israel was designed to be a nation of priests, prophets, and missionaries to the world; a distinct people, who pointed others towards God and His promised provision of a Redeemer, Messiah, and Savior.

It was God’s choice in the New Testament to discontinue the narrative of mainstream  Israel and establish the church as a remnant commissioned to partner with Him in redemption. Of course Romans chapters nine to eleven make it clear that the Jews are still included in God’s plan. God keeps covenant, doesn’t He?

God will always be about trimming and pruning His people. When I reflect upon all that he has “cut away” from my life over forty years of being a believer, I’m thankful for what remains. In a very healthy way, I’m a remnant of who I used to be! 

Put on the new man who is renewed in knowledge  according to the image of Him who created him. (Col.3:10-11) “Renewed” means: to be changed into a new kind of life as opposed to the former corrupt state. The one other place it’s used in scripture is 2 Corinthians 4:16: Therefore we do not lose heart. Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day. 

“Change is here to stay.” We are being transformed…from glory to glory.  In the physical realm, a remnant is a reduction in size; Noah’s family after the flood, Gideon’s army, the exiles in Babylon. In the spiritual realm, the remnant principle is unto enlargement. Pruning is unto a greater fruitfulness. 

The pain in pruning comes from the relinquishing of what once worked for us as a coping mechanism or means of survival in life. These can be classified as “dross” and contain varying levels of toxicity. Though painful on the front end, the gold that’s “left behind” is a treasure worth the sacrifice.

The dross we lose is no comparison to the gold we gain.

Resurrection Power

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Imagine if the resurrection reality was not a part of the Gospel! We would suffer a massive loss of benefits, both temporal and eternal. “If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable…If the dead do not rise, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.'”           (1 Cor.15:19, 32)

I have personally experienced God’s resurrection power in my life. I went from being dead in trespasses and sins to being made alive. God raised me up to come alongside the rest of the Body of Christ, to sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus. This was a tangible event in my life thirty-nine years ago, and yet it remains a daily source of strength by which I am able to walk out the Christian life. The “Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead” dwells in me. (Ephesians 2:1-6; Romans 8:11)

The hope of the resurrection needs to stay current in our minds. News items have a way of falling out of our view, like an email message that loses its primary position on our computer screens. Today’s headlines will become tomorrow’s archives.

Resurrection power needs an invitation to manifest. Consider those regions within us that are still in bondage, where “Lazarus like” grave-clothes are hindering our freedom. At salvation I felt totally “unwrapped” but over the past four decades I’ve been blessed to see a great increase in personal freedom, thankfully visiting many “tombs” from which Christ has called forth my true identity.

The Ezekiel-like journey to a valley of dry bones is filled with anticipation, though the journey is certainly arduous at times. But this I know: Resurrection power will come to those who know their dead bones well enough to speak to them.

Then there are those places within that have been brought to death on the cross. Where the flesh is crucified with Christ, the soil is fertile and rich for resurrection to take root and grow. “For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin.” (Romans 6:5-6) The most troublesome areas in life are those where we are still slaves to sin.

Hiding is at best a temporary solution; denial a surface détente. The valleys are full of sinful attitudes, errant thought patterns, uncontrolled emotions, judgments, embedded hurts… One reason why Christians don’t see more dynamic change in their lives: Everyone is afraid to go into the graveyard.

“How will I find my way? It’s all just so confusing. It doesn’t seem worth pursuing. We’ve tried before.” Understood. It’s not always easy. My suggestion is to follow the markers. Some will be easy to locate; large and ornate. Others will be close to the ground and even covered over. Be assured that when God leads you to a grave marker it’s not simply for remembrance or reflection; it’s for resurrection.

When Jesus yielded up His spirit to God, the veil of the temple was torn in two, and many graves were opened, their former occupants seen walking in Jerusalem on that very day. Death and resurrection is a match made in heaven.

Jesus continues to yield Himself to God as our High Priest and Intercessor on a daily basis today. May His resurrection power encounter your heart afresh.