Alone

Genesis 2:18
It is not good that man should be alone

Luke 5:15-16
But now even more the report about him went abroad, and great crowds gathered to hear him and to be healed of their infirmities. 16 But he would withdraw to desolate places and pray.

I have heard several times in the past couple of days people reminding one another (reminding me) of the difference between isolation and solitude. This isn’t a new concept for some of you or to the counseling world, but it’s new to a lot of us, maybe especially us extroverts that don’t do this “alone” thing very well. In light of this, I want to mutually confess the pitfalls of isolation and then wade into the warm spring of Gospel-Solitude.

ISOLATION

1 Peter 5:8
Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.

When a predator is looking to overtake a victim, he begins by trying to separate him from his group which offers him safety. We see it clearly in the animal kingdom, and see it with great horror among abusive people. But it is also true in the spiritual world.

When we are isolated, we become vulnerable to lies from outside and inside. We don’t have an accountability-filter to help us discern what is real and what is false, what is truth and what is a lie. Here are a few of these tactics:

  • When I am by myself, I think I’m actually and truly alone. But I’m not. The Lord has told us perpetually throughout history that we are never alone; that he will never leave nor forsake us; that he dwells within us and we dwell within him.
  • When I am by myself, I begin to believe that I have been abandoned. I feel like I’m not loved, wanted, needed or valuable. This tends to happen because we rate our value and identity on what we accomplish and what others say to and about us.
  • When we are by ourselves we are more susceptible to overt sins. (Think broad here: lust, gluttony, sloth, over-spending etc). We may think that nobody will know and therefore it doesn’t really matter. But sin isn’t a matter of consequences as much as it’s a matter of love, and fidelity to our Lord because of his faithfulness to us. Be alert when you sense yourself falling into a place of isolation.

SOLITUDE

Psalm 46
“Be still, and know that I am God.
I will be exalted among the nations,
I will be exalted in the earth!”

When Jesus was getting stormed on all sides, he took a personal prayer retreat (Luke 5:15). He knew that all of his strength and hope sprung out of his communion with the Father and the Spirit. He didn’t go off by himself because he was weak but because he actually knew what was real, what was essential. And what was coming.

Right now we are all faced with what is mostly likely the least amount of human contact and connection you’ve ever had. With very few exceptions, we literally can’t be physically near each other. Whether or not you are an introvert or extrovert, we all crave intimacy; we crave affection; we crave loving touch. Science has proven and confirmed what Scripture has always taught: “It is not good for us to be alone.” We were designed in God’s image to be in relationship and we are weakened outside of them.

So what do we do in this time when we are so limited?

This alone-time is an opportunity to truly and deeply strengthen three other relationships. I invite you now to join me in intentionally using this time to re-calibrate what’s most important in life.

  1. With your loved ones. If you are able to be near to your loved ones, what would it look like to take this time to intentionally grow closer? Asking questions. Listening. Sitting down and learning new things.
  2. With the Lord. What a time we have to have actual, deep, undisturbed, quiet time where we can read, talk, listen and invest.
  3. With yourself. None of us truly know ourselves. We are all (to a degree) terrified of what we’ll find if we really look. But it is utterly imperative. So much so that John Calvin, as he began his historical work (The Institutes), his first sentence was this: “Nearly all wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves”

When the time comes for us to come together again, if we could have grown a little more in our primary relationship with the Lord, we will be able to more freely engage with one another. We can enjoy each other without strings, without forcing the other person to make us feel complete, because we’ll already realize that we ARE complete in Christ. This solitude time, though wrought with great struggles, can actually be used by God to grow us in ways we couldn’t have grown because we weren’t willing to engage “self-solitude”.

This challenge toward healthy solitude might feel overwhelming. It leaves me hoping that I have the strength to do it. Then I remember that the power has already been given to me. That I can find joy and health when I’m alone because, in fact, it is literally impossible for me to be alone. I remember the last days of Jesus. He began the week by being with his best friends in the upper room enjoying community, conversation and the Passover meal (that was missing the lamb, because he WAS the lamb). But a short time later Jesus and only a few of his closest brothers went to the Garden of Gethsemane as he was preparing for the Cross. As they entered Jesus (in Luke 22) “withdrew from them” so that he could be in solitude with His Father, face to face. Though a horribly painful time, what intimacy he and the Father had at that time. Deep sorrow, emotion, pain and conversation.

And then…the cross. Jesus was truly isolated in ways we can never remotely understand. He was utterly alone and separated, forsaken, by the Father. In so doing he paid the price of our isolation. And in rising again he has given us new life. And in being glorified into perfect intimacy with the Father, he sent his Spirit to us to dwell in us, and us in Him.

It’s in this truth, this hope, that I can mediate when I am by myself, letting the Gospel remind me of how, when I am listening to the lie that I’m an orphan, I am a beloved, cherished son of God.

Memory Care

Psalm 42
5 Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you in turmoil within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
6 my salvation and my God.
My soul is cast down within me;
therefore I remember you
from the land of Jordan and of Hermon,
from Mount Mizar.
7 Deep calls to deep
at the roar of your waterfalls;
all your breakers and your waves
have gone over me.
8 By day the LORD commands his steadfast love,
and at night his song is with me,
a prayer to the God of my life.

It’s pretty embarrassing when somebody catches me talking to myself. Maybe it’s when I’m doing a project around the house and I complain at myself for not being able to hit a nail straight; or maybe it’s when I’m trying to write a blog and I tell myself how dumb I am for not being able to think of the right word to use. But sometimes when I talk to myself it’s with words of encouragement, like after I finish a workout and (though it feels arrogant) I silently proclaim “Man, I killed it today” or as I eat the brisket that took me 12 hours to smoke I proudly tell myself “This is pretty dang good.”

Here’s reality: we talk to ourselves constantly, proclaiming “truth” to our souls. Sometimes this “truth” is actually a lie, and other times it’s actual Gospel Truth. And it’s often hard for our hearts to tell the difference.

Sometimes I tell myself how alone, unlovable, incompetent and worthless I am. Lies.

Sometimes I tell myself (not in a personally prideful way) that I am a man of value, promise, ability and love. Truth.

Here in Psalm 42 the Psalmist (the sons of Korah) lets us into his inner thoughts; the things he is experiencing, feeling, thinking, saying, fearing, hoping. I want to pull out a handful of truths that we can apply to our real, everyday life. Especially when there is fear, strain and pain (like right now with COVID-19).

Be Honest

Jesus has no care for your buttery religious platitudes. He did not come to pat you on the back while you shallowly proclaim that you are “too blessed to be stressed.” Now, I do know (and struggle with envy) those who have a super optimistic and faithful outlook, and really aren’t (often) struck with anxiety and fear. This isn’t what I’m talking about. I’m talking about how the Lord longs for us to be truly honest with the concerns, pains, fears, doubts, vices, tears and wailings in our life. (He also wants to hear about the sweet joyous things, but hold onto that thought for a second). Enough of the “I’m fine, how are you” conversations we have with ourselves and with Jesus. Dig deep, like this Psalmist, and cry out that there are waterfalls and waves crashing over us, and it feels like we are going under; it feels like our Lord has forgotten us; it feels like we are alone, out life is over, futile, wrecked.

But don’t stop there…this is just the beginning of hope and healing.

Talk to Yourself

Sit in the pain and fear. Try to actually hear the enemy that is trying to convince your heart that you are overcome, and then talk back. Begin to have a back and forth conversation with that broken part of you that is hurting. This Psalmist, when he is feeling overwhelmed, turns to his own soul and says “Why are you downcast?” He says “He little guy, what’s going on? What are you REALLY afraid of? What’s making you hurt?” I think he sits and listens to his little broken soul, and then he calmly, truthfully and hope-fully whispers love into his soul. He tells himself “Hope in God, for I shall again praise Him!” I don’t think this is a directive to us but a directive to himself! It’s not something weird or magical, but a practical way to be honest with what’s happening inside your heart, and letting the Holy Spirit speak Love into the weak and hurting places.

(HERE is a tremendous podcast by Church DeGroat to help explain what it means in times of anxiety to honesty “talk to yourself” in a hope-filled, productive way.)

Memory Work

The practical work of finding this hope is wrapped up in this one word: “Remember.” Over and over and over and over God tells his people to “remember.” God’s people would set up stones and monuments to that, when later generations would ask about them, those who have gone through the Red Sea and Jordan River would remind themselves and others that God’s rescuing steadfast love has never ever ever failed. When the armies attacked; when they were enslaved; when hope seems to have been lost, God himself “remembered” his people and rescued them (No, God never forgets us, but “God remembering” is a literary device to comfort our hearts as it reminds us that we are on His mind, and He longs to save us).

So, what about you? How do you do this? Amy (my wife) knows how much I need this in my everyday life, so she bought me a simple spiral notebook for me to write down what is happening in my heart. It’s not really a diary, but a place where I jot down little words and phrases. My personal way (we can each do it differently) is to have 2 simple columns: one that says “Thankful” where I just write a word of what I am thankful and the other says “Helpful” where I am asking for God to come intervene (I include confession in this columns).

Ultimately, the very best Memory Work and Self-Talk I can do is to hold onto 42:8

8 By day the LORD commands his steadfast love,
and at night his song is with me,
a prayer to the God of my life.

Look at the verse more closely. The LORD himself is talking to himself. Even though God is Love itself, he “commands” his HESED (his Steadfast Love) to overwhelm and overcome us. When it feels like the waterfalls and waves are crashing over, it is actually God himself and He steadfast love surrounding us.

Jesus himself allowed Death itself to crash over him; the Father and the Son both went through the cross-centered pain and strain of being “forsaken” so that, even when this world crashes around us, we have a Father that will protect and hide us under His wings. Jesus has secured for us our perfect Home and perfect Family that will never perish, spoil or fade.

This by no means minimizes the reality of pain, hurt and true threats around us. But it can, the Spirit’s power, put them into eternal perspective. Very very slowly, prayerfully, graciously, God’s love can begin to eclipse our anxiety. Our anxiety may (likely will) still be there, but so will our realization of our Loving Father.

Giantest Giant

I suspect that a lot of you are like me. Have you had (or how often have you had) that dream where danger in some form was pressing in on you…your house on fire, an intruder approaching your room, a looming car crash….and. you. are. paralyzed. Your window won’t open; your feet can’t grip the ground; your legs are immovably heavy. You are stuck and have to face sure doom.

This stuckness has sprouted roots into all of our hearts ever since the Garden. It was there that Adam and Eve, after cracking Creation itself, hear the footsteps of the Lord and crouch down in shame and fear. And they’ve passed this inheritance down to all generations like a bad heirloom that nobody wants.

To get a better understanding of this incapacitating fear, let’s look at a beautiful comparison/contrast in Numbers 13 & 14 where God’s people are on the verge of entering the Promised Land after being miraculously rescued from Egyptian slavery through the parting of the Sea:

Numbers 13
30 But Caleb quieted the people before Moses and said, “Let us go up at once and occupy it, for we are well able to overcome it.” 31 Then the men who had gone up with him said, “We are not able to go up against the people, for they are stronger than we are.” 32 So they brought to the people of Israel a bad report of the land that they had spied out, saying, “The land, through which we have gone to spy it out, is a land that devours its inhabitants, and all the people that we saw in it are of great height. 33 And there we saw the Nephilim (the sons of Anak, who come from the Nephilim), and we seemed to ourselves like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them.”

A collection of men were sent to scout out the land that the Lord has sworn to them. But there was a problem Most of the men came back with a terrifying report that the land was teeming with murderous overwhelming enemies that would surely wipe them out. And then there was Caleb and Joshua who were sure of their victory.

The difference between these two responses has nothing to do with how big or how real their opposition was. It was about how big and how real they saw their Lord, and how sure his promises were. And it still is.

We are currently living in a crisis that virtually nobody alive has ever experienced. Adding fuel to this fire is the instant availability of information, much of it powerful enough to save countless lives (i.e. the “flattening the curve“), some of it so false and/or inflammatory that it might actually cost some lives…for certain cost many of us a peace and strength that the Lord wants for us.

So what does the Gospel actually mean in this territory, where microscopic giants are wreaking havoc? Let me pull a few things out of this passage (and beyond) to give us direction and hope:

  • Use Wisdom: God’s people, holding onto God’s promises, also used the brains, hearts and information available to make the wisest moves forward, especially when it came to protecting the most vulnerable among them. Moses send scouts ahead not out of fear but out of wisdom. As we see at the end of the story, the faithlessness of God’s people caused them to wander in the wilderness, but the Lord still protected His children, the vulnerable ones, and would still guide them into the Promised Land behind the leadership of Joshua and Caleb.
  • Hold onto God’s Promises more than the empty threats of this world. Yes, COVID-19 is a very serious problem and has/will cause untold destruction. And God is even bigger, and has/will bring about untold glory and restoration. We see in Numbers 14:21 this promise among a fainting people: “But truly, as I live, and as all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the LORD.”
  • We as a church aren’t going underground or crouching in fear, but mobilizing into smaller “scout groups” (like Moses sent out) so that we can be more relational, more effective, more personally and practically loving than we could be in a larger cluster. This pandemic is absolutely horrible. And yet an opportunity for us to be refined as followers of Jesus as we hold onto him rather than this world, and sacrificially serve others as a living testimony not to our own courage but to the One that has come to set us free.
  • As you read that, please wisely evaluate your current role and calling. Moses sent out “heads of the people of Israel” (Num 13:3). He did not send out those who were the more vulnerable and at risk. If you fall in this category, please allow the rest of the Body of Christ to go ahead on your behalf. Let the body serve the body, and serve the community. To God be the Glory.
  • Finally, in the end not only will God get the Glory (Num 14:21) but he will also bring his people into the Promised Land…in His perfect way and in His perfect time. We know that to be perfectly true because Jesus has already gone before us and defeated the greatest threatening giant: sin, fear and death. On the cross we see the death of death itself. Whereas as ALL fearfully looked on the horizon and saw the grim reaper justly swinging his sickle, Jesus stood his ground, was cut down by the sickle meant for us, and three days later rose again in full beauty and glory so that now the sickle, though it will one day take our flesh, will never touch the hearts and souls of those that know and trust in Jesus as the Giantest Giant of all.

Joshua 1:9
“Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.”

John 16:33
(Jesus said) “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”

I encourage you to join me in sitting at the Lord’s feet, even if your knees are knocking together and you don’t want to, meditating and worshiping using the song embedded below: Yet Not I But Through Christ In Me

Evil Schemes

Mark 5:1-20 (excerpts below)
2 And when Jesus had stepped out of the boat, immediately there met him out of the tombs a man with an unclean spirit. 3 He lived among the tombs. And no one could bind him anymore, not even with a chain, 4 for he had often been bound with shackles and chains, but he wrenched the chains apart, and he broke the shackles in pieces.

9 And Jesus asked him, “What is your name?”
He replied, “My name is Legion, for we are many.”

The narrative of Good vs. Evil permeates virtually every story we know and love. There is always a protagonist and an antagonist; a good guy and a bad guy; light vs. dark.

  • Skywalker vs. Vader
  • Avengers vs. Thanos
  • Axis vs. Allies
  • John McClane vs Hans Gruber
  • Kevin McCallister vs. Wet Bandits

The reason this battle is so pervasive in our stories is because it is written in our very DNA. From our inception we have been designed for perfect love, but we’ve listened to and followed the lies and deception of the evil-one. What is so terribly embarrassing is that his schemes are not creative in the least. From the beginning he keeps whispering twisted lies that God isn’t who He says he is and we aren’t who he says we are. These same lies keep coming in different forms, enticing us to live for ourselves, be our own rulers, kings….gods…usually coming back over and over to sex, money and power. But when you think about it, why would he change his schemes since they are clearly working just fine.

As we look through the most vivid demon-story in Scripture we can see several tactics our enemy uses, followed up with the one true remedy and victory. Here are a couple of these tactics:

  1. Divide and Conquer. The man with an “unclean spirit” (“demonized”) was overtaken by the enemy and separated from community, from himself, from hope. This is a first-stage tactic: isolation, loneliness and hopelessness.
  2. DeHumanize. We are made men and women of value, precious in God’s sight. But this tomb-dwelling man was so hopeless he became less “himself” — he felt that his God-Image was so broken that he wailed and cut himself. In our sin we are literally becoming “less ourselves” by living contrary to our identity of love.

In reality, we see two different truths about our enemy:

  1. They are more powerful than we think. These demons teamed up and dominated this tomb-man. They played him like a puppet. For a moment, don’t get lost in the “possession” language. The truth is that these horrible and personal forces either have an evil controlling behavior, or they have (more often) an evil influential behavior. Every one of us hear and respond more than we know to these whispers, telling us to serve ourselves, turn our backs on truth and our Savior, use others to elevate ourselves.
  2. They are less powerful than we think. Re-read the incredible narrative of Jesus’ encounter with these beasts. There was no battle whatsoever. When the demons even saw Jesus, they fell face-down and pleaded for mercy. Jesus didn’t have to lift a finger…he merely spoke. He simply commanded the demons to go, and they went. Though we can easily be afraid of evil, the honest truth is that, though we ought to respect it, Jesus has full and utter control over them, and he has come to “give abundant life” (John 10:10). He has come to set us free from the power of sin and darkness. Even at Jesus end, when Peter wanted to free Jesus from arrest, Jesus said that he had twelve times the ability to be free…

Matt 26:52-54
Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword. 53 Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? 54 But how then should the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?”

But…he chose to go to the cross instead because, in so doing, he put death to death. He finally and fully crushed the head of The Serpent so that, though his tail whips back and forth causing damage, his defeat is sealed and Christ’s victory is fully won.

But for now we live in a world filled with trials and temptations, with our enemy whispering lies and death into our ears. To get a clearer vision of these lies, of Satan’s schemes, as well as the Truth we need to hold onto as we face the lies, Thomas Brooks wrote a book in 1652 called “Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices” where he lists out dozens and dozens of our enemy’s schemes, each followed with a handful of different Gospel Truths to combat and protect our hearts and lives from what the enemy is trying to do: to steal, kill and destroy (John 10:10).

You can read the entire book online for free HERE

Or read a short summary (for free) HERE

Here are a few of these scheme/remedy combinations:

Scheme: “Others sin worse than me”

Remedy: The Truth that we need to have our eyes humbly and repentantly on ourselves, not on others. We don’t know others’ hearts and are called personally to take God’s love, life and truth seriously. Life and morality are not a competition but a life of Jesus-given victory, life-long repentance and dependence.

Scheme: “God will forgive me”

Remedy: The Truth that sin decays and destroys. Yes, God will forgive you, but sin has consequences and causes damage to others and you.

Scheme: “You are worthless; focus on your failures”

Remedy: The Truth that you are made in God’s image. For all who are in Christ the Lord proclaims over us what he proclaimed over Jesus as His baptism: This is my son, whom I love, in him I am well pleased” (Matt 3:17)

There are dozens and dozens of these lies/remedies. I would encourage you to give them a glance and ask the Spirit to guide you into a place of God’s joyful presence

For 2 of my sermons on this topic, click HERE and HERE.

The Shame Tree

Luke 19:1-4
He entered Jericho and was passing through. 2 And behold, there was a man named Zacchaeus. He was a chief tax collector and was rich. 3 And he was seeking to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was small in stature. 4 So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him, for he was about to pass that way.

Zacchaeus was a wee little man
And a wee little man was he
He climbed up in a sycamore tree
For the Lord he wanted to see

This is showing my age and my church-upbringing, but that children’s song about Zacchaeus being a “wee little man” just sticks right inside my head. I can see myself singing it as a little kid. What I didn’t know then and am just now wrapping my head around is precisely how “wee little” Zacc was…how “wee little” I am. Whereas Luke is certainly referring to Zacc’s physical size, it could just as well refer to his heart.

You see, Zacc (as you likely know) was a treacherous traitor. Though he was born a Jew, a child of Abraham, he sold his soul to Rome by becoming a tax collector…and not even a regular tax collector, but a chief tax collector, and one that was wealthy. As a collector he would have military backing to go door to door collecting taxes from his fellow Jews. He had a certain amount Rome required, and whatever extra he charged, he could keep. As the chief, he was the one sending these villains out, skimming off of their skimming. As a wealthy chief, he would have been horrifyingly corrupt in fleecing his own brothers and sisters. He would have been utterly despised and shunned. But at least he was rich, right? If he couldn’t be loved, he could at least be feared, and be comfortable. But it clearly wasn’t working. He began to realize that he was indeed little, very little. His heart had shrunk so that he wouldn’t have to feel his deep pain; his conscience paper thin so the could continue to rob his spiritual family; his love all but gone so he could live just one more day. He was a wee little man.

And so are we. How are you little?

  • Are you petty with others so you feel taller?
  • Do you critique and criticize to keep others beneath you?
  • Do you set your heart on measly worldly treasures to comfort you?
  • Do you seek fleshly satisfaction to numb your greatest fears?

We are all little, and in desperate need of seeing Jesus. Maybe just one glance. Maybe touch the hem of his robe, or steal a little glimpse of he who some refer to as the Messiah. But the only way to do that is to risk being shamed, risk being exposed for the littleness of your soul. Zacc decided to take this risk. He climbed a tree a little ways ahead of Jesus, knowing full well how utterly shameful it was for a grown man to climb a tree. The same is also true for us. For us to risk a glimpse of Jesus means that we have to, at least to some level, admit our littleness. We have to confess to some degree that we are weak, needy, broken, empty, lost, ashamed. And this is exactly where Jesus wants us, where he meets us. He has no interest in meeting the (outwardly) strong, secure, satisfied, healthy people (in reality, those people don’t exist this side of heaven, except in false perceptions). So when Jesus walks by while we are exposed up in our Tree of Shame, He stops, looks up, and calls our name! He declares that he has come to Seek and Save those who are lost (Luke 19:10), revealing that it actually wasn’t Zacc looking for Jesus, but Jesus looking for Zacc (HERE is a great sermon that talks about that by Alistair Begg). He calls us out of our shame and into his presence…and this is what he says:

5 And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.”

Jesus invites him to “get over himself” and come down. When he then says that he wants to go to Zacc’s house it isn’t for a quick cup of coffee. to “stay” at someone’s house in this culture was to go over for a few days and “abide” with that person. Which is exactly what Zacc needed. He needed the ongoing presence of God himself to heal him and invert his life. And we need it too. We don’t need a magic wand of healing, we need a Person to come in, abide, have his way, clean us up and send us out with His Holy Spirit.

This utterly changed Zacc, which manifest in glorious repentant acts of love. Scripture calls us to 10% giving, Zacc said (because of Jesus’ love) to give 50%. Scripture calls for a thief to return the money + 20%. Zacc said he’ll return the money +300% (a total of 400%). It wasn’t to gain Jesus’ approval, but because he already had it. And this side of the cross we now realize that on the cross Jesus was counted among the thieves so that our thievery could be paid for while being given Jesus’ perfect record of grace-giving.

So, what shame do you have that needs the healing abiding of the Presence of Jesus? Can you ask the Holy Spirit to reveal a particular “littleness” and heal you of the shame that’s plaguing you? And can you hear the words of Jesus “Come down out of your tree of shame. I want to come stay with you!”

Preserves

“Peach Preserves” by Emily Land

In the late 1800s the Lands sailed away from Prussia and landed on the Texas coast. In fairly short course they wound their way up into the Texas Hill Country pretty close to Junction and settled the Land Ranch (full of prickly pear, mesquite and deer)…the place where my dad would be born and where us Austin Lands (me, my brother, mom and dad) would perpetually visit to enjoy the glory of the Texas rolling hills. What and incredible blessing to have had that growing up. Well over 1000 acres for a kid to roam, swim, hunt and grow up.

Next to the old ranch house was an enormous garden and grove of peach trees, producing enough food to last the whole year, if you know how to keep the food from spoiling. That’s where Granny (my dad’s mom) was a superhero. Summers were filled with picking the fruit and veggies. When early winter came around we’d drive up to the ranch to hang out with Granny and Grandpa, try to bag a whitetail deer that would become our dinner for the next few months, and feast on all the glorious food that Granny would magically bring out of the kitchen (using a fair amount of lard in the process). No matter the time of year she could go to the pantry and pull out all sorts of beautiful summertime goodies: pickled watermelon rinds (sweet, with cloves), tomatoes, sweet jams, homemade sauerkraut, etc etc. My goodness. One of my favorites was the peach preserves. It was like opening a mason jar filled with summer.

There is something almost miraculous about preserving things. A little boiling, a pinch of this and scoop of that…then seal it in a mason jar and it’s good for a long long time.

This concept of being “preserved” is one of the hardest for Jesus-followers to grab hold of. Somehow we can, by the power of the Spirit, believe and base our eternity on the fact that we are sinners in need of mercy, and we’ve been given the gift of salvation that Jesus bought for us on the cross. But then things don’t simultaneously turn to butterflies and rainbows. We still struggle with outrageous selfishness and we live in a world that is still horrifyingly broken. These things combined makes us wonder if God’s love is really working, really intact. Have I “gone too far” and fallen from grace? Has God “gone too far” and let the world spin out of control. Sometimes it simply doesn’t LOOK or FEEL like God loves me or the rest of the world.

It’s into these blinding times that Paul puts a glorious exclamation point on Romans 8. The first 8 chapters of Romans is a beautiful, artistic and methodical revealing of The Gospel: our vast rebellion which has created an insurmountable cost; Jesus fully paying that insurmountable cost on the cross and gifting us not only the forgiveness of sins but also the full record of Christ, the indwelling of the Spirit and the ability to call God our Abba Father. And when all of this seems far too good to be true, Paul caps the whole Gospel off with these promises:

Romans 8
35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?…37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

We all suffer from a spiritual Separation Anxiety, and have a gnawing feeling that we are or will be abandoned by our Father. We were created to have intimacy with God, but we detached from him when we listened to the devil’s lies that we’d be better off without Him. But the Lord decided that the story wasn’t over. He chased us down in the desert and brought us home. It wasn’t our goodness or faithfulness that brought us into God’s family, but HIS goodness and HIS faithfulness. And now Paul assures us that, for all who are wrapped up into his paternal arms, it is fully up to HIS strength and love to keep us home, not ours. Paul is so emphatic that he lists every conceivable excuse we might have in Romans 8…and says that “nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Older theologians labelled this “Perseverance of the Saints.” I agree with them, but I prefer to call it “Preservation of the Saints” because it puts the verb in God’s power, not ours. He has made us His Bride (Revelation 21) and made vows to us that are literally impossible for him to break. Even when we break the marriage vows we’ve made to him, he is faithful to the wedding vows He’s made to us. We are safe. Secure. Loved. Home.

And these promises propel us to be “more than conquerors” in the world as God empowers and sends us to the ends of the earth in his name to share his love.

But I constantly forget.

I need to marinate in the security of God’s love for me. In an effort to help with that I’ve been sitting on these passages (and there are so many more). I pray that they can bring a calming, secure, hope-filled and empowering peace to you as well.

Psalm 139
O LORD, you have searched me and known me!
2 You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from afar.
3 You search out my path and my lying down
and are acquainted with all my ways.
4 Even before a word is on my tongue,
behold, O LORD, you know it altogether.
5 You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.
6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is high; I cannot attain it.
7 Where shall I go from your Spirit?
Or where shall I flee from your presence?
8 If I ascend to heaven, you are there!
If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!

Jeremiah 32:40
I will make with them an everlasting covenant, that I will not turn away from doing good to them. And I will put the fear of me in their hearts, that they may not turn from me.

Philippians 1:6
And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.

Ephesians 1:13-14
In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, 14 who is the guaranteed of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.

John 10:27
My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. 29 My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. 30 I and the Father are one.”

Groanings too Deep

Romans 8:26
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.

“in our weakness”

I really don’t like those words. I hate to admit when I am weak, to ask for help. I get a lump in my throat and a pit in my stomach as I begin to realize the vast extent that I…

  • … say shockingly hurtful words
  • … put my own desires over others’ needs
  • … judge and criticize, internally and externally
  • … take forgiveness for granted
  • … am captivated by the shiny objects of this world
  • … disbelieve the gospel
  • … forget that I am a child of God, and so are you
  • … can’t just “fix” it myself

It may be a blow to our pride, but this is exactly where the Lord finds us, exactly where we need him the most. He finds us at our weakest, when we are wholly incapable. We have sunk nose-deep into the quicksand of sin, fear and death. Not only can we not crawl out, even our cries for help are muffled by the mire. And as we look around, we catch a glimpse of One that we didn’t even realize was there. Just over to our right is One that reaches out to take hold of our hand, hold us up and call in the cavalry.

This is the pure and sure help we see in Romans 8:26. Let’s look at three beauties of the Holy Spirit found here:

Helps

The Holy Spirit is right here, right now. As part of the Godhead, He was intimately and intricately involved in the very formation of every fiber of my being. He knit me together atom by atom. He placed each freckle exactly where he wanted and made my 2nd toe a little longer than my big toe. And when He was done building my whole frame — body, mind and soul — he took up residence right inside of me so that I can never ever be alone. As my helper the Holy Spirit stands with me, shoulder to shoulder, walking with me through each fire and each flood. (see the songs at the bottom for more this)

Intercedes

The Holy Spirit, as our personal Author, knows our hearts better than we do. He knows our pains, our fears, our failures, our successes, our motivations, our desires and our needs. And he takes my mosaic heart-smorgasbord straight up to the Father to plead for help, mercy and love in ways we never could. We have no idea what we truly ought to pray for. Left to our own devices we will almost always pray for self-comfort things. There nothing wrong with this, it’s just not sufficient. There are greater glories in this world than I can ever fathom. And so the Spirit pleads on our behalf. And the most amazing thing happens: the Father says “Yes.” To every prayer the Spirit makes: “Yes.”

So, what IS the Holy Spirit praying for? Often he agrees with our prayers. Often He doesn’t. But this we know: He always pleads for our “good” and God’s glory. And He knows exactly the words to whisper into the Father’s ears…”groanings too deep for words.”

Deep Groans

This is one of the more shocking phrases in the Bible. A phrase that breaks the traditional stoic stereotypes we have of God. “Groanings to deep for words” can also be translated “Love Secrets.” Sit on that for a second.

And because of this miraculous presence and work of the Holy Spirit we can read Romans 8:28 not as a platitude or with skepticism, but from the mouth of a God who went face to face with the greatest evil this world has even known…the murder of the Son of God…and inverted this evil into the Greatest Good, the Greatest Love ever imagined: the salvation of all who believe.

Romans 8:28
And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.

If God was able to invert murder into new life, he is able to meet me in my weakness — regardless of what that weakness is — my sin, others’ sin, fears, anxieties, infirmities, relationships, poverty, hunger, sadness…whatever. The Holy Spirit never leaves, is never at a loss for words, and never unable. He is God With Us

This outrageous hope can be perpetually difficult for our hearts hear, believe and hold onto. So, in an effort to help, here are two songs to speak to the Lord standing alongside and leading the way through the fire and the flood

Feral Orphans

Our daughter Emily rescued a wild (I mean that in every way) cat named Rafreaka that defines “Feral”, as her clipped ear reveals (a sign that a homeless cat has been neutered and returned to the wild). Even though she’s pampered and well-fed for the past several years , she can’t seem to get the Feral out of her system. She will stand by the closet door where we keep her food yelling at us to give her more, even if we just fed her. She’s stuck in the Feral System.

Think for a moment what it would mean to be truly Feral. You would have to fend for yourself just to survive one more day. Every desire or need would be totally up to you, and you would be in life and death competition with everybody else around you for the scarce life-saving resources. This would cause perpetual fear and probably drive you to do things you never thought you’d do just to get by. And this would be so deeply ingrained in you that, if you were ever adopted into a home, your heart would certainly keep going back to being afraid and scrounging for the scraps you need.

You and I are just like Rafreaka. In Christ we have been fully and beautifully adopted into the Great Heavenly Family and our Heavenly Father has, by giving us his own Son, proven that he will perfectly and generously provide for exactly what we need, when we need it. Yet I stand by the door yelling at Him for more, more, more. The issue isn’t our demanding behavior, it’s our meager and wavering belief that we are actually in God’s family, under the outrageously loving protection and provision of our Father. Into this weakness Paul gives us outrageous hope:

Romans 8:15
For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!”

Despite what it feels like; despite the ingrained feral heart that I can’t shake, the truth is that I am loved beyond belief and have been given a Royal Inheritance that isn’t only the life to come, but the flood of love and blessings in the here and now, including the very presence of the Holy Spirit that has been given as a deposit guaranteeing the Hope that is to come.

Last week I mentioned the nearly-impossible-to-grasp truth that every shred of our sins have been perfectly paid for on the Cross…but that forgiveness is actually only HALF of the story. Leaving us sinless still leaves us short, because we need to be righteous, which we can’t remotely achieve on our own. And so the second half of the Gospel meets us in our Christ-Given sinlessness and envelopes us with Christ’s Robe of Righteousness.

Isaiah 61:10
I will greatly rejoice in the LORD; my soul shall exult in my God, for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation; he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself like a priest with a beautiful headdress, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.

The Righteous Beloved Son of God met me when I was a Feral Orphan, and traded places with me. He took on my orphanhood when he was forsaken on the cross, and imputed me with his status as Beloved Son. And what’s more, when Jesus rose from the grave, he brought me along with him so that not even death can impact my status, my righteousness, my New Family.

So run to your Abba, Father, your Heavenly Dad. He’s calling you to come to him with your loves, fears, failures and plans, and trust in his power and love. You are not alone and no longer Feral. You don’t have to fend for yourself at the expense of your heart and everybody else around you. You have been adopted into God’s family and will never be abandoned.

Absolute Absolution

Romans 8:1
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

Romans 8:1 is the most significant verse in my life. It encapsulates the beauty, power, significant, practicality and freedom of the Gospel in my real everyday life.

Walk with me for a minute through our proverbial “permanent record.” You know, that thing teachers threaten kids with: “If you don’t tell Johnny you are sorry, this is going on your permanent record.”

Elaine Benes from Seinfeld encountered this. Some doctor at some point wrote down that she was a “difficult patient.” Years later, as she was trying to get medical help for a rash, the doctor looked down at her chart and treated her curtly with no compassion or help, because she was known to be “difficult”. The rest of the episode follows her trying to get seen by doctors as she trying to steal and/or erase her Permanent Record (obviously to no avail, even with Kramer’s help).

This premise is just a silly thing of sitcoms, right? Or, what if our failings and flailings really are etched into a permanent recorded? Be brave enough for a second to ponder the record of your life. Those offensive words of gossip, lying, slander and criticism; how we’ve belittled, demeaned and even dehumanized others; how I fudged some numbers, took credit for somebody else’s work and arrogantly patted myself on the back.

Even though these things are sufficient to warrant a guilty verdict, what about my internal life, my hidden thoughts and motives? How, in my insecurity, I see myself as better than others because I haven’t done that and have done this. How I am greedy, dismissive and (as Jesus talks about in Matthew 5) committed murder in my heart. What if my actual motives (of which I’m not even aware) were published?

But hold on a second. Our permanent record doesn’t just contain our “sins of commission” (the things I’ve done and thought that elevate myself over God and/or others). What about the “sins of omission”? Those things I haven’t done that God has commanded me TO do? Generosity, words of encouragement, evangelism, sacrificial service, prayer…you know, loving God and loving others with my heart, mind soul and strength (Mark 12:30).

Oh man. This makes me writhe with Paul in Romans 7:24

Romans 7: 24
Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?

But before I turn into a slug covered in salt,
I am transported along with Paul to the next verse!!!

Romans 7:25
Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.

And now we more fully appreciate and glory in the very next verse – Romans 8:1

Romans 8:1
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

The more we can be honest with the extent of our treason, the more we can be gloriously overwhelmed with the gift Jesus acquired for us on the cross. That infinitely long “Permanent Record” has been permanently paid by Jesus. If I believe that I have about 5 pounds of sin, I only need a 5 pound Jesus. But the older I get the weightier I realize my sins are (they aren’t heavier, I just realize them more)…and the weightier I see Jesus and his sacrifice. I had no idea he paid THAT much! I had no idea he is THAT amazing!

If Romans 8:1 is true (and it totally is) the more I am drawn into love and worship. There are times I am oppressed by the extent of my debt, and then am reminded by my community and the Holy Spirit that every shred of non-love, every loose word and self-centered deed, every arrogant thought, has been perfectly paid and covered by Jesus. God has enacted absolute justice for me on Christ, leaving me utterly washed clean. Take a second to see this in the life of Delmar from Oh Brother Where Art Thou?

The glory of this verse, the insurmountable beauty of absolute absolution, brings life-changing hope and peace. But it’s actually only half of the story. It leaves us sinless, but God actually requires more than that…he requires righteousness, which he also has procured for us in Jesus…but more on that next week.

If you don’t want to wait for next week, then go read Philippians 3:1-11, especially 3:9…”and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith…”

Advented Peace

What does it (or would it) look like for you to have true, deep, sustainable REST? I don’t mean the “Wow, that was a good night’s sleep” kind of rest, or the “I don’t have any drama in my life right now” (as if that was ever possible) kind of rest. I mean the kind of rest that is a deep contentment of inner peace where my heart is not troubled, I’m not afraid of what is around the corner, nor am I haunted by the past (of what I and others have done). Now, before I move on, I struggle to know how sustainable this True Peace is this side of heaven, but I do know that it’s possible and even offered through the Holy Spirit right here in our current world, even in the midst of the barrage of artillery coming your way. So let’s look into it together, praying that the incomprehensible Peace of God can be a reality in my everyday life.

Isaiah 57:19b
Peace, peace, to the far and to the near,” says the LORD, “and I will heal him.

As we’ve seen over and over, Isaiah loves to repeat himself. He doubles up words (and once, in Isaiah 6, triples up the word “holy”) in order to put serious emphasis on it. It’s like when a teenager says “I don’t just like you, I “like like” you.” In Isaiah 57 we are told that, while we are drowning in an ocean of idolatry and rebellion (expressed in our works and our “righteousness” (i.e. legalism)), God leans down to pick us up and give us rest from our flailing legs as we helplessly and fatally tread the water of fear and anxiety. The “peace peace” that God offers is not the singular peace the world offers. It isn’t “just relax” or “stop worrying” coping techniques. It’s something literally miraculous (God breaking into our world) and personally designed for you in your exact situation (not a general platitude).

This all sounds fantastic, and I really need it. Now. The way God has made this miraculous PeacePeace possible is in calling and empowering me to hold on the Past Advent and Future Advent (some of these “future advent” thoughts springs out of John Piper’s book “Future Grace“).

To be able to hold onto peace today, I have to stand on the truth that God has personally “advented” himself historically in the birth of Christ in order to rescue us and has perpetually advented himself throughout history in the person of the Holy Spirit; this Spirit has advented himself into my heart, life and situations continually throughout my life, and that he will perpectually, now and forever, intervene in my life not just yesterday, but this afternoon, tomorrow, next year, next season, next forever. And that Jesus will one day Ultimately Advent again in the second coming. I can hold onto the Person of Peace not because problems will stop (they won’t this side of heaven) but because The Problem (sin, fear and death) have been crucified with Christ, who now reigns as our Sovereign King as he advents his Kingdom into our hearts and world even right now. And it is actually HIM that is holding onto me, setting me free from the death-grip I think I have to conjure up heart-peace.

Let’s do an exercise that leads us toward God’s Advented (and Adventing) Peace.

I would encourage you to read Psalm 85 four times in the Lectio Divina style. Something like this (with a prayer-break in between each reading):

  1. Read Simply: Notice the big picture and flow of the passage.
  2. Read Meditatively: What words draw your attention; why this word at this time?
  3. Read Prayerfully: Dialogue with the Author of the passage; speak and listen.
  4. Read Thoughtfully: What does the Holy Spirit have for you in this passage today?

The Lord, in his creativity and personal attention to us individually, will draw out different beauties and applications for each of us. For me personally I was struck with the intimacy of God’s character traits, specifically in verse 10 & 11:

10 Steadfast Love (“Hesed”) and faithfulness meet;
Righteousness and Peace kiss each other.

11 Faithfulness springs up from the ground,
and righteousness looks down from the sky.

Each of God’s character facets intimately interact with and draw out one another. His unending and unbreakable love is made sure and strong through his eternal faithfulness, which tells us that God doesn’t even have the ability to break his promise of love. Likewise, the Lords’ righteousness, his beautiful holiness, is so sure and eternal, and, as we know on this side of the cross, has been given to us through the Advent (the “arrival”), crucifixion and resurrection of the Jesus Christ:

Philippians 3:9
…and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith—

In my anxiety and churning stomach I can rest in the assurance that, despite the lies my heart hears, I have been made “right” with the Lord, and he finds incredible pleasure in being my Father, my Daddy. That when my world spins I am being held and God has not lost any degree of his love or control. Though all doesn’t feel right, all IS right. “It is well with my soul.”

Ephesians 2:13-14
13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility…

Finally, to bring it all home, when I am looking for peace, I think I am looking for a resolution to a problem or the removal of a brutal feeling; I think I am looking for a state of being, of rest. These things are partially correct, but actually way too small. What I am actually desperately longing for isn’t being at rest, but being WITH the Man of Rest…the Prince of Peace; what I am actually looking for is Jesus himself, not just what Jesus will give me. To be sure he can and will give me a state of peace, but only as he gives me HIMSELF. When my world flips and my heart breaks, I am called primarily to the Person of Christ, not just to feel better. If I search for the feeling, I will get neither; if I cling to Jesus as he clings to me, I get both.