Friday, May 29, 2015

My Sin Your Sin

Since I opened Pandora's box and started the sin discussion, let's finish the week out on it. Today's story comes from Moses, who is a guy we tend to have a pretty high opinion of. 

When we talk about Moses' weaknesses, we talk about his insecurity. He wasn't sure about himself when God chose him to be the prophet to a nation. We talk about maybe his temper. After forty days on the mountain, he took God's handiwork and smashed it against the ground. In fact, he often seems so exasperated. He's always calling the people of Israel a wicked people. A faithless people. A burdensome people. 

But what we rarely talk about with Moses is a scene from later in his life, and this one's only in the book of Deuteronomy. It's in there twice, actually, and in short order. It's the scene where Moses...passes the buck.

Back in the recounting of the Exodus, the Bible tells a story about the people's rebellion. There's no water to drink in this conflabbed desert. Did the Lord bring us out here just to die? (A common complaint they have, by the way.) And God tells Moses to gather the people in front of a rock, strike the rock with his staff, and demonstrate the power of the Lord. 

And it goes...almost...according to plan. Except Moses changes the script. He gathers the people, raises his staff, and says, Do I have to bring water from this rock for you? He forgets to mention that it's the Lord, not himself, speaking. So now, the people think the water is coming from Moses, not God. It is for this bold speech that God declares that Moses will never enter the Promised Land. He has not shown the people God's glory, but his own.

Fast forward to Deuteronomy, where Moses is recounting the entire Exodus experience and God encounter for the people on the banks of the Jordan, on the edge of the Promised Land. In chapter 1 and again in chapter 3, Moses declares, It is because of you sinful people that I am not allowed to go with you. It is because of your sin in rebellion at the rock that I will die just a stone's throw away from Canaan. 

Uhm, not quite, Moses. It's because of your sin that you're about to die. No one else's.

It's the that woman scene all over again. If that nation You've given me, Lord, hadn't rebelled, then neither would I have done so. If that nation hadn't been so demanding, I wouldn't have had to put my foot down so firmly. If those people hadn't been screaming for water, we wouldn't be in this mess. And he tells the people just the same. If you people hadn't made me, I wouldn't have sinned. 

Come off it, Moses. 

You see, but I think it's what we all do. It's so hard to own up to our sin. We have so many excuses, so many stories about how our sin came to be, about why we had to do things the way we did them, about how we got into this mess. It's so easy to look at someone else and say, well, you sinned and now we're all screwed. But no one else makes you sin. 

You sin because you're a sinner. I sin because I'm a sinner. We sin because we're all sinners. 

Welcome to the Fall. 

Even when it's pointed out to us that maybe it's our sin that got us here, it's so easy to shrug our shoulders and say, my sin...your sin....somebody sinned. Does it really matter who? Yes, it does matter who. Particularly when you're making a scene about it. Particularly when you're dragging God into it. Particularly when you're looking to place blame. The blame for your sin falls on your shoulders. Period. 

And I think, easy as it is to be like Moses here, we need to do a better job of taking responsibility for ourselves. It's refreshing when someone owns his own decisions. It's refreshing to hear someone honestly say, you know what...I screwed up. I disobeyed the Lord. I chose a different way. I decided that I thought I knew best, and you know? My best didn't turn out. 

It gives us the chance in the same breath to also say, but God is turning out my best. Look! There is the Promised Land, just a stone's throw away. Look! There is Jordan. We did it. ...He did it. We're here. We made it. Look! There is Canaan. Can you smell the milk and honey? 

It still stings to stand on that mountain. To have to say, look! There it is. ...but I can't join you. It's hard to say, how beautiful is the Promise! ...but this is as far as I go. It's agonizing to say, there is your home! ...but here is the bed I have made for myself, and now I must lie in it. 

It's hard. But you know what happens when we do? When we take responsibility for our own sin and stop passing the buck? Even as we grieve how close we've come and how far we must stay away, we get to look at the people God has given us for this season - the same people Moses was so quick to blame - and we get to go get it.

Go get the Promised Land. It's beautiful. Go cross the Jordan. It's incredible. Go take Canaan. It's yours! Go feast on milk and honey. It's delicious. Go! For the Lord your God is going ahead of you, and He has prepared this place for you. 

Then we stand on the mountain and watch. We watch a people poised to take hold of everything God has given them. Yes, it stings that we're not going, too, but there's something about seeing them ready, something about seeing them excited, something about seeing them take those first bold steps into the raging river that reminds us, even as our sin-struck bodies are fading away, that God is, indeed, good. 

After all, He even brings water from rocks. 

Thursday, May 28, 2015


The disgusting nature of sin is troublesome for most of us. We're okay with the idea that we might be wrong sometimes; wrong is something we can easily fix just by being 'right.' But disgusting...

Disgusting is hard. 

It's hard for a few reasons. The first is the same reason that being wrong is sometimes hard: there always seems to be a mind trick out of it. There are men and women among us who can commit the most disgusting of sins (as if there's a hierarchy) and look at themselves in a mirror and still think themselves beautiful. We can do the same. We can tell little white lies. We can take little shortcuts through life. We can even engage in whatever dark pet sins we keep. And most of us can still look at ourselves in the mirror and not think ourselves disgusting. And so it becomes this safe little area for us, this sin niche. We can do this and not feel the filth, and so it must not, after all, be sin. 

There's an equal danger on the other side here. Some of us look in the mirror and see nothing but filth. The idea that sin is disgusting, paired with the knowledge that we're all sinners, keeps us in a perpetual state of disgustedness with our gross selves. There are some who preach this is precisely where we ought to be, but I don't buy it. If you look in the mirror and can't see anything but your own disgustingness, how are you ever supposed to believe God sees more than that? If you look in the mirror and cannot find a way to love yourself, how are you supposed to believe God loves you? If you look in the mirror and have no grace, how are you supposed to fathom grace amazing? Persons who fall in this category spend their lives defeated. That's no way to live. 

Disgusting is hard for a third reason, and this is perhaps where it gets most real. At least for me. It's hard because there's no real standard for us of what disgusting is. Right and wrong are fairly concrete ideas. It's like yes and no. Black and white. Good and bad. There is some delineation, of course, but we all fairly understand that there is a difference between right and wrong, and we have some good guidance in our society of what that is. 

Clean and unclean are far different. We don't hold these as standards any more in our society, so they're almost meaningless. In ancient Israel, clean and unclean were even more clear cut than right and wrong. They were more concrete categories even than black and white. Everyone knew what was clean and what was unclean, and so when God said that sin makes a man unclean, everyone understood that there was a severe line that separated the unclean from the clean and that God was making a categorical, not a relative, statement. 

Clean and unclean, to us, has become relative. It depends on the time and place. It depends on the circumstances. So when God says that sin makes us unclean...what does that even mean? It's so hard to know. 

But let me say this, and I say this from hard experience: when it finally sinks into your heart what disgusting is, you'll know. You'll feel every heavy burden of it. You'll feel its horrid weight. When you let your heart contemplate sin and grace, you'll find yourself in this place where disgusting means something. It has to.

Because you're feeling it.

And when you reach that place - that place where sin makes you feel more than just "bad" or...sadly...nothing at all - when you come to a point in your life where sin all of a sudden makes you feel gross...that's when you know you have it. That's when you start to understand clean and unclean. That's when grace like rain starts to make sense. 

Because you're praying for the skies to open up and grace pour down and wash you clean.

It feels like nothing will ever be able to make you clean again, like you've really done it this time, like you're marked a sinner forever. Like anyone could just look at you and see your grossness. Like everyone would just look at you and be disgusted. Like God Himself turns away because even He can't bear to look at you right now. You can feel the slime settling in all over your skin, the little particles of dirt settling into the crevices of your heart. Yeah, you've really done it this time. Nothing...nothing will ever make you clean again. Now, you have a right view of sin. It's not something anyone can teach you or preach at you. You have to just experience it and then, you'll never forget. 

But never forget this, either: there's still grace. And this is what grace is all about. Grace makes a way. It makes a way for you to be clean again, for you to come back. It makes it possible to wash away the film and the filth and the stains. It rushes through your heart and picks up every little speck of dirt out of every little crevice and washes it away. 

Oh, grace like rain, pour down. Wash this sinner clean. 

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The Problem of Sin

Sin is not one of those topics I talk about often. In fact, you could probably count on one hand the number of posts I've made where sin is the primary topic. However, I have learned something recently - the hard way, as all good lessons on sin come - that I can't help but sharing. 

I don't think we have a right view on sin. I don't think we understand the complex nature of it. For most of my life, and for nearly the entirety of my Christian life, I think I've always heard the distinction of sin as one of right and wrong. There are things we do that are right - pray, read the Bible, go to church - and there are things we do that are wrong - lie, cheat, steal. These wrong things we do are sin, and they are sin because they are, well, wrong. 

It leaves us a little loophole, doesn't it? In this understanding, if we can look at our sin and construct a worldview in which what we've done is not 'wrong,' we can equally say it is not 'sin.' And if what we have done is not wrong and therefore not sin, we clearly cannot be sinners. 

I'm okay; you're okay. 

That's why, I think, the Bible never talks about sin as a distinction between right and wrong. God never wants to give us the opportunity to talk our way out of sin, as so many of us are so skilled at doing. The way we reason it, we talk our way into (or out of) sin. Because I have done wrong, I have sinned. But that's not it. 

Sin is the primary thing, not the result. 

It's not that because I have done wrong, I have sinned. It's that because I have sinned, I have done wrong. But that doesn't quite get at it. Right and wrong are such fickle ideas. They're not black and white; they're shades of grey. Is it right or wrong to steal? What about to steal a loaf of bread to feed your starving family? Aha...these are the questions we always come up against.

The Bible, though...the Bible doesn't conceptualize sin this way. In the Biblical view of sin, there is no right and wrong. It's all about clean...and unclean. It's about pure...and impure. When the Bible talks about a God who gets a glimpse of sin, it's not that He's grieved that His child didn't choose what is right (although He is), it's that He's disgusted

Do not do these things, the Bible repeatedly says, lest you become disgusting. Sin makes us disgusting! Not because we have chosen the 'wrong' thing, but because we have become unclean by our doings.

This changes the entire concept we have of sin. You can't talk your way out of filth. The other day, I was just finishing up a run when my 4-year-old nephew arrived. He came right over to me, so, dripping with sweat, I gave him a big hug and told him how happy I was to see him. Then I offered him his favorite treat. He said, "Ok, but just not yet" then proceeded to walk over, pick a few tissues out of the box, and towel my sweat off of him. He just kept asking, "Why are you so slimy?" 

That's what God is asking. He's not asking "Why did you do wrong?" There's not a way for us to rationalize our choices. We can't use shades of grey to cover it up. God's looking at us, in love, covered in our grossness, and asking, "Why are you so slimy?" He wouldn't, of course, refuse our hug, but you can't really blame Him for wanting to towel off afterward. 

We're gross. And there's no conceptualization of sin that makes us less disgusting. 

Because it's not about right and wrong. It's not about reasons. It's clean and unclean. It's pure and impure. It's an aroma pleasing to the Lord and the stench of decay. When we start to understand that, we start to understand sin. 

And we don't want to do it any more. Not because it's so wrong but because it's so gross. 

So very, very gross. 

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Forty Days

God likes to do things in 40s. Have you noticed? Israel wondered for 40 years. Jesus was tempted for 40 days. I'm not sure what the whole idea behind 40 really is, but I'm gaining a new appreciation for what it really means. 

Today is May 26. Forty days from now will be July 5. That feels like forever away; it's more, even, than an entire month away. Forty days before now was April 15. That, too, feels like forever away. But it also feels incredibly close. 

I know. Because this year on April 15, I was doing something.

See, 40 days is interesting precisely because of this. It is a sufficiently long enough time that it can feel like a full season. It's more than the days you could count if you were counting. It's more than a whole month. It's not this nice, neat unit of time that can be checked off a calendar. It's kind of...even though it ends in odd number. Just enough time to throw you off and to become something. 

It's also just enough time, I think, for life to become life. For whatever's happening to stop being novel and start being normal. Whatever you're facing, when you do it for forty days, you find inevitably that it's just become natural. It's what you expect. It's become life as you know it. 

I wonder if Jesus felt that way in the wilderness. If He just got to the point where He woke up in the mornings after a fitful night of sleep and knew that Satan was coming at Him again. If He didn't even blink any more but almost expected it. 

For better or for worse, 40 days is enough time for life to feel normal. 

But not entirely.

Because even though it becomes routine, it still sort of feels a little bit new. It still takes a little bit of thinking, of effort, to remember what you're doing. Like any new habit, it takes consciousness and intentionality to make it work. Forty days is enough time for things to become more natural, but it's not enough time for things to feel fully so. You still have to work at it, at least a little bit. 

You still have to make the conscious choice about how you want to do this thing. 

So I guess I would say 40 days is weird because it's enough time for life to feel like life again, but not so much time that you can stop being intentional about how you're living it (if, in fact, you're trying to live it a certain way). In that sense, it is both an eternity and a blink. It's forever...and it's brand new. 

And you learn so much in 40 days about who you are. About who God is. 

Now, I'm only 30 years old, so I really have no firm understanding of 40 years, but I would imagine it's the same - long enough to be forever, short enough to still be new. I think that's what we see in the Exodus story. There, 40 years is an entire generation and yet, it's also when God does His new thing. It's just long enough to be meaningful, just short enough to be inspirational. 

All this because yesterday, I started a tweet with "Forty days later..." and couldn't help but think about what 40 days really means.

Both everything and just enough. 

Monday, May 25, 2015

Memorial Day

Finding someone who would die for a godly person is rare. Maybe someone would have the courage to die for a good person. Rom. 5:7

Today, we pause to remember those who have had the courage to die that we might be free. 

To the American soldier, the sailor, the marine, the airman...thank you.

Friday, May 22, 2015

The Briefcase

There's a new show coming out this summer called The Briefcase. The premise is simple - a family receives a briefcase containing $100,000. It is up to them to decide how much to keep and how much to pass on to another, unknown, family who also has a financial need. 

It sounds noble enough, like a great human experiment. 

But this is going to be a challenge to the faithful among us. We have to be very careful here not to let ourselves be drawn into faulty theology. If we go down that road, we don't glorify God; we set Him up for failure. 

There will, I think, inevitably be at least one family who looks at the money, looks at their need, and decides that God will provide for them. Then they pass on the entire sum of money to the second family and come off looking like the faithful. They are, after all, trusting God to take care of them. And publicly! This is what the Christian life is really all about, isn't it?

....not really. 

Because when you take this potential gift, this potential blessing, that's sitting right in front of you and pass it on, declaring that God will take care of you, what are you really saying about God? You're saying that He's going to transcend the universe and come supernaturally to help you. This is something we've been believing about God for centuries - that He moves heaven and earth to get to us, that He does the impossible, that He will magically and mystically take care of our every need if only we'll trust Him to do so. 

And He does move heaven and earth. ...but not all the time. He does do the impossible. ...and the possible. He does magically and mystically take care of our every need. ...often through the mundane.

Does that mean everything that comes your way is from God? Not necessarily. Does it mean God's provision is not supernatural? No. It just means we have to be discerning and alert. God may be doing the most unexpected in the most quiet way. 

I can't help but think about this potential family, the one that looks at more than enough money to put them on stable ground, and refuses to touch a penny of it on the basis of "faith." I can't help but wonder what happens when their financial situation doesn't get any better, when five years, ten years, twenty years from now, they still find themselves saddled with the incredible debt they're facing now (only snowballed because, well, interest). I can't help but think about how their faith starts to be challenged if God doesn't show up in this invisible way.

I can't help but think, to paraphrase an old story/joke, what happens when one day, they meet God and get to ask Him why He never helped them when they put so much faith in Him. And God just looks at them and says, I sent you a briefcase full of money. What more did you want?

See, most of us are willing to live like this. We're willing to push aside the very real provision that God is making in our lives because it doesn't feel supernatural enough. Because it seems so quiet, so simple. Because it's not thunder-and-lightning, earth-shaking God. It's just...say...a briefcase. And then we spend our lives questioning why it is that God never comes to us.


It's bad theology. It's faulty theology. See, God never promised to do all the big things in our lives; He promised to do all the good things in our lives. When you're looking for God, you don't have to keep looking for all the big, supernatural, unexplainable, impossible things. You have to look for the very real blessings that are pouring down on you right now. 

And no, you probably don't take the whole $100,000. But you pray about how much of it God might want you to have. Not out of some "noble" sacrifice that someone else might need it more, but out of the recognition that you need it now and God has seen fit to provide. Then, thank Him for it. It's that simple. Instead of trying to show the world our "faith," we ought to be showing them His faithfulness.And that only comes through our accepting of His gift and our thanks.

When you take what God sends your way in thankfulness, it's not a lack of faith; it's an act of faith.

So the question is this: what's really in that briefcase? Could it be more than mere money? Could it be God's incredible blessing poured out on you?

Will you take it?

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Wholly Yours

You may have noticed that it's rather popular in American culture to use imaginary mathematical figures like "110%." Last night, I heard more than once someone say, "150,000%." That's 1500 times whatever the entirety of a thing is. 

And yet, this is where we are in our society - always trying to give more than we have. It's why, I think, faith can be so difficult sometimes. 

Because we're told over and over again that we have to keep being more. That we have to excel, that we have to exceed. That we have to do the nearly-impossible, or indeed, the impossible, if we want to do anything at all. God says we're supposed to give Him all we have, all we are, and our faulty math makes us look in the mirror and wonder whether that's enough.

It's not so much that we're afraid we're not giving enough. If it were, that would be simple. What's so dangerous about this line of thinking is that it subtly creeps in until we're afraid we don't have enough to give.

What is God supposed to do with a measly little me?

So we're always looking for a way to give God more. More than the best of ourselves. More than the rest of ourselves. More than everything we are. All of me is simply not enough.

But God never requires more of you than you have. He doesn't ask you to give Him the world; He asks you to give Him yourself. You don't have to feel responsible for giving God more than all that you are. He already knows all that you are. And there's a reason for it. There's a reason He made you just this way. 

It's actually exactly what He expects from you. 

Still, we beat ourselves up like somehow, God was expecting more. Like He's disappointed that we aren't 150,000% or even 110% of who He made us to be. 

Can any one of us change God's incredible creation? Can we challenge His intelligent design? Why do we think that we know better who we ought to be than the Creator of the Universe who made us precisely this way? Who looks at us with incredible pride and declares our creation...good? 

There's no shame in not being more than who you are. There's no embarrassment in being simply you. You don't need to give into this pressure that tells you that you're not enough, that you don't have enough to give. It's not about that. You have everything in the world to give, and when you give your everything, you're doing it. 

That's what God wants from you. From us. From me. He wants our everything. Nothing less and certainly nothing more. Would you even have it to give? Of course not! And what's so ironic is that the harder we try to find more than our wholeness to give to God, the less we end up actually giving Him. It's like we're stocking it up, saving it up, tucking it away until it feels like enough. Then we'll give it to Him. Then we'll surrender. Then we'll have a worthy offering.

Just stop it. You have a worthy offering now. It's you. The wholeness of you. Not 1500 times the man you are, or the man you ought to be. Not even 1.1 times your fullness. It's 100%. It's all of you. It's your everything. 

And it's enough. 

Wednesday, May 20, 2015


I guess the real trouble I have with this anamnesis during the act of baptism is that I have trouble thinking about what I'm not forgetting. Because I'm really looking at this person who is making this decision, thinking about the same decision I made, and wondering...if I ever really made it.

It seems so clear in the waters. In that defining moment, it's obvious. I'm giving my life to Jesus. But the more time goes on, the longer the years go by, the more I continue to grow in my faith, I wonder if I've given my life to Jesus at all. Even a sliver of it. 

It's an easy question to ask, I suppose. My normal, everyday life doesn't feel like my baptism did. I don't have that same energy, that same passion all the time. I don't have that mix of anticipation and excitement and anxiety that kind of just seized my heart on baptism day. 

And then, hauntingly, there's this: I can't help but wonder if my baptism wasn't something I thought I was doing for myself. I mean, I'm one of those persons who "gave my life to Christ" without even knowing Him. It wasn't about Him. It was more, for me, a letting go of my life. It was an act not of faith, but of hope. Hope that there might be a better way to live, even though I didn't understand yet what it might be. 

So sometimes, I wonder if I'm not maybe stuck there. If I'm not still in that place where I keep letting go of my life without really giving it away. Hoping that God might pick it up, but not requiring or even expecting Him to. 

These aren't easy questions. That's why I wanted to share them. Because I know I'm not the only one. 

When I start thinking about questions like I asked yesterday - would I do it again? - during this anamnesis,  I am grieved. I start thinking about all the things that day meant to me at the time, and I am struck by my own foolishness. Thinking...thinking it was anything when it wasn't what it was supposed to be. Wondering...wondering if I'm ever going to come to that place where I live by faith and not by hope. 

Which is not to say I don't believe in God or that I have no faith at all. It's just.... 

Anyway, when I see someone dedicate their life in baptism, I'm brought back to all of these things. Most importantly, I think, I'm brought back to this place where I remember what it's like to want to do that. To want to trust God so wholly, so completely, that I can't help but give my whole life to Him. What it's like to have that moment of absolute assurance, excited nerves aside, and to take that leap. And I wonder if I'll ever really do it.

I wonder if I'll ever do more than let go of my life. 

I wonder if I'll ever give it away.

This is the power of the anamnesis. 

Tuesday, May 19, 2015


I think we all - in our various tribes and churches - have our own ways of not forgetting (see yesterday's post). It's the little reminders we sprinkle throughout our services that are meant to help us bring to the forefront of our minds these key pieces of our spiritual journeys or the incredible grace of God. Usually, it's Communion, of course. But it doesn't have to be.

For us, in my tribe, I think one of those things is baptism.

Baptism is, except by insistent request, a public event in my church. This is meant to do two things. First, it's meant to be an encouragement to the baptisee. There's nothing like coming up out of that water, feeling a thousand pounds lighter, and hearing your new family applaud your faithful decision. That sound of all these people - some of which you know, some of which you don't - standing behind you, rallying behind you, affirming's amazing. 

But second, and I think this one is easy to miss, the act of witnessing a baptism is supposed to bring us back to our own. It's supposed to help us to not forget what it was like when we went into that water. When we rose again. When all those people clapped for us. When we felt that weight lifted off our spirits. When we gave our life to Jesus Christ in that most powerful spiritual moment.

This...this is where I tend to struggle a bit, and perhaps it is a reflection on my own baptismal process more than anything universal, but I think there's some truth in this that might speak to you, too. 

I struggle because sometimes, it feels like the whole spiritual journey, if you're not careful, can be all downhill from this mountaintop experience. It's very rare to find a Christian with as much fervor, as much fire, as much confident assurance as the one who dares step into the baptismal waters. In that moment, we're ready. We're giving it all to Him. We're turning our life around. We're doing this thing. For real. 

As time goes by, we're giving some of it to Him. A little bit here and there, really. We're turning our life around and around and around, but not taking many steps forward any more. All that excitement we had about stepping into something new? It's gone. Somewhere along the way, we stopped taking many steps at all. Everything has just sort of...stagnated. 

I'm not saying the Christian life is without its moments. Maybe it's just that the moments change as we grow and mature in our faith. I don't know. There are times when the presence of God is so strong in my life that I can't imagine trying to live without Him. There are other times, honestly, it's really not. 

When I watch a baptism, I have to admit - sometimes, I'm sitting there wondering if I would do it all again. Knowing then what I know now, feeling the way then that I do now, all that fire mostly smoldering out and settling into a quiet, but still confident, faith...would I step into those waters? Would I make that confession? Would I say now, in what has become so routine a part of my life, boldly that Jesus Christ is the Son of God? That He lived, died, and rose again for the forgiveness of my sins? 

It's not easy to think about, but it's important. It's part of this anamnesis, this not forgetting. And I don't forget. I don't forget what the evening of July 15, 2000 was like for me. I don't forget what it feels like to step into those waters. And to step out of them. I just all my not forgetting...about the ways my faith has changed over the past 15 years and what it would be like to do it all over again today? 

What about you? Would you do it again? If it came to it right now, would you give your life to Jesus all over? 

Monday, May 18, 2015


Recently, I was reading a book about the theology of the Catholic Mass. Curiosity, really, and for many reasons. (No, I don't think I'm converting any time soon.) But there comes an interesting point in the Mass called the anamnesis.

They call it the remembering. 

It's a time set aside for those in attendance to remember the sacrifice of Christ, to remember the impact of God in their lives, to think about all the things they don't normally think about and to give space to the oft-forgotten holy among them. And I think to an extent, we all try to do this. In our daily lives. In our prayers. In our church services. In our Communion (and it turns out the entire Mass is sort of based around this act of Communion, or Eucharist). We do our best to remember what it is that God means to us, whenever we can.

What struck me most about this particular chapter, however, was the name given to this portion of the Mass. If it were merely the remembering, I think it would have to be called something else. Recollection, perhaps. Or Recalling. Even, one might be tempted to say, Remembering or Remembrance. But it's not called any of those things. It's called anamnesis.

Literally, "not forgetting."

(Amnesia, of course, is the loss of memory. The prefix an- negates the word that follows. So literally, "not losing memory" or "not forgetting.")

That is fundamentally different to me than simply remembering. Remember, to me, is an act of the will. I consciously recall something. I force myself to bring it up. I let it come washing over me, and I try..I try so hard to feel it all over again. To see, smell, taste, touch, sense it all over again. To let it touch my heart in the same way. To try to recall what it was like the first time it hit me. 

But not forgetting? Not forgetting is an act of willfulness. It's a refusal to let go. It's a conscious choice to keep something right in front of me. I don't have to work so hard to make not forgetting meaningful. I don't have to labor to bring up the same old feelings with it because I've never let it get so far away. I've never let go of it enough that I can't remember. It's right there. Right there on the tip of my experience, just waiting to be drawn back close. 

It's a subtle difference, maybe, but it seems like all the world to me. Remembering demands of me every little thing, and then it seems to be me who is making the moment. Not forgetting bears with it every little thing, and then it seems to be the moment that is making me. That's huge. In not forgetting, not only have I refused to let go, but I refuse to be let go of. I don't let those experiences fade off. I don't relegate them to the back of my mind somewhere. I don't have to remember...I have to only remember not to forget. And then those little moments just sink into me over and over and over again, deeper and deeper until they're cemented into my heart.

I think this actually works this way. At least, from my experience, it does. Recently, I've been through quite the spiritual journey (alongside a physical journey, as these things tend to go). And I've learned so much, and changed so much, just by trying to experience this life in a different way, centered in God, reflecting on what my faith is supposed to mean to times like these. Now, it's easy, of course, when things go back to normal (or whatever passes for normal) to forget all the spiritual things you've learned along the way. At least, it's easy for me. But this time, I just keep reminding myself not how much I want to remember. Remembering is so much work. But rather, that I do not want to forget. I don't want to forget what it's like to live out of that place, and so I keep coming back to it so that it never really gets away from me. A little more every day, it draws closer and closer still until it's just settling into my heart not as a memory, but as a new reality. Not in the act of constantly recalling, but in the discipline of refusing to forget in the first place. 

It really does change things. That's why I think it's so beautiful that the Mass addresses this time as anamnesis - the not forgetting. It's so beautiful.

So the question is this: are you spending your time with God trying to remember? Or are you spending it trying not to forget?

Friday, May 15, 2015

Afraid of the Dark

Why do we close our eyes when we pray? We've been talking about this all week, and I'm using myself as an example (because really, I can only speak for myself). Sometimes, I close my eyes because it cuts out all the distractions. Sometimes, because there's nothing worth looking at. Sometimes, because I just need rest.

But sometimes, I don't close my eyes when I pray. There are reasons for that, too. One of them, as discussed yesterday, is that I'm straining to see something better. Another one, and this will be the last post in this series for now, is this:

Sometimes, I'm just afraid of the dark.

Sometimes, I'm afraid that if one more thing goes dark in my life, that's all there's going to be. Darkness. It's like if I close my eyes, even for just a second, even to pray, what little light I have left in me is just going to get sucked away and the darkness is going to swallow me whole. Sometimes, if I close my eyes when I pray, it feels like I'm never going to be able to open them again. 

It's not pretty, but it's real. It's honest, I mean. 

That's the nature of darkness. It just sort of keeps creeping in until it's everywhere, until it's everything. Before you know it, there's nothing and so often, it feels like you didn't even see it coming. It just sort of...happened. And you've probably heard about or seen the meme that goes around social media every now and then - the light of a single candle is so powerful that all the darkness in the world cannot put it out. Well, that's why I pray with my eyes open sometimes. It's my last desperate cling on light. 

And all the darkness in the world cannot shut one open eye. 

As long as you're willing to keep looking, as long as you're willing to see, the darkness can never overtake you. I think about the nights I've been lying awake in bed and had the power go out, how at first, it's all darkness but then within a minute or two, my eyes sort of adjust. Whatever little remnants of light remain - from the stars, from the streetlights, from the sun all the way on the other side of the world - shine just enough for me to separate the shadows. 

Because total darkness? It's only ever artificial. It can only exist in unreal places. Like a couple of months ago when doctors shut me in a pitch-black cylinder. There is total darkness, but it's only in man-made confines. In the natural world, in Creation, there's always at least a remnant of light. Always at least a memory of it. As long as you have eyes to see, and as long as you keep them open, you'll eventually catch on. 

Which is why sometimes, I just have to pray with my eyes open. It's the only hope I have of fighting the darkness. 

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Straining to See

Sometimes, I close my eyes when I pray - for the reasons we've been discussing this week. But sometimes? Sometimes, I don't. And there are reasons for that, too. 

Yesterday, I said that sometimes, I close my eyes when I pray because there's nothing worth looking at. Because I can't look at this brokenness for one more minute. But sometimes, I don't close my eyes when I pray because I desperately need to see. I need to see...something.

I need to see something beautiful. I remember one time, I was standing on the edge of an open field in the middle of the country, and the endless rows of untamed weeds seemed to reflect my spiritual state at the moment. Not ugly, just drab. Just the kind of thing you look at and know it's weeds. And I stood there, praying, eyes wide open, when I caught a glimpse of a single splash of color about thirty feet away. As I focused in on it, I discovered a lone wildflower in the middle of this field. One lone splash of life in the midst of the weeds. Had I prayed with my eyes closed, I would have missed it. 

Or I'll pray with my eyes to the sky, watching the clouds roll by. And all of a sudden, the sun just sort of breaks through and creates this beautiful artwork across the heavens. If I prayed with my eyes closed, I would have missed it. 

Sometimes, my eyes get flooded by the pain, by the brokenness, by the hurt in this world and it's so easy to close them. As I said yesterday, there's nothing worth looking at. But against all better judgment, I hold my eyes open and pray with a ferventness of heart - Lord, let me see. Give me something to look at. 

And He never disappoints. 

It doesn't come easy. I want to turn away. I want to embrace the barrenness in my own soul and retreat into darkness. I want to start my prayer and just sort of let it trail off into emptiness, the way my spirit feels sometimes. With eyes wide open, I can't do that. 

With eyes wide open, prayer pulls me out of my emptiness. Or at least, it has the chance to. It doesn't mean I dive right into fullness; sometimes, I just see one full thing in the middle of it all. One flower in a field of weeds. One ray of sun on a cloudy day. One drop of dew on a blade of grass. Heck, there have been times in my life where I have felt blessed to notice the one nail on the deck that sticks up a little too far. It's the smallest, and sometimes, the craziest things. 

I think it's because sometimes, the troubles in this life seem like the biggest things. Whatever I'm dealing with, whatever I'm wrestling with, it seems so huge. Like it's just looming over me. And these little things that God grants me to see, they pull me back into my own smallness in that mystifying way, like standing under the stars at night. They draw me back into a universe in which everything is in its rightful place. All the big stuff, all the small stuff, there's purpose or meaning it. There's something holy in it. It's a reflection of God, and it pulls me back.

So I don't always close my eyes when I pray. Sometimes, I keep them open. Because I'm straining to see one good thing around me.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Until I Can See

Why do we close our eyes when we pray? 

I asked this question yesterday with one answer - that sometimes, I just need rest. And there's the longstanding idea that we're just trying to block out all distractions and focus wholly on God. But there's another reason that sometimes, I close my eyes when I pray.

Sometimes...there's nothing worth looking at. 

Sometimes, I'm struggling to see God. Maybe I can't see Him at all. Maybe all I can see is the trouble and the trial all around me, and I don't want to see it any more. I can't spend one more second looking at the problems of this world, and so, I close my eyes. 

I close my eyes because when I do, what becomes most real to me is more than what I can see. Things don't look the way they've been seeming for so long. It's often in these moments, eyes closed, that I feel my own heart beating. And I don't remember when it started beating so fast, or why. Apart from what my eyes can see, I realize I'm not really so stressed. I'm not so troubled. This world is troubled, and I just kind of got wrapped up in it. I feel my heart racing, and I just breathe until it slows down again. 

It's often in these moments, eyes closed, that I start to hear again the whispers of God. And I realize how loud I've had to turn up my world, how much I've cranked the volume on everything because I've been afraid of missing an important message. ...I was missing it anyway, for all the noise. Apart from what my eyes can, see which looks so busy and frantic and crazy, I realize it's not really so loud. I did that. I turned the volume up. And I'm able to quiet back down until the whisper is loud enough. Then I settle into that. 

It's often in these moments, eyes closed, that I feel the idleness settling into my hands. They've been so busy, been working so hard, been doing so much, and yet, it's not been anything. All this work, all this labor has been for nothing because it hasn't been meaningful work. It hasn't been God's work. It's been the work that this world has convinced me needs doing, and it's been all for naught. Apart from what my eyes can see, I can sense what my hands long to do. The work that's built into them. The work that's inspired in me. And I'm able to put my hands to better use. 

Sometimes, there's nothing worth looking at because it's all distraction. It's all meant to deceive me, to make me believe that God is not enough. And God? I can't even see Him at all. So I close my eyes.

I close my eyes until I can remember Him. I close my eyes until I can hear Him. I close my eyes until I can feel Him. I close my eyes until I know that when I open them again, I will see. I will see Him. 

Just another reason why sometimes, I close my eyes when I pray. 

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Close My Eyes

Why do we close our eyes when we pray?

I always thought, and perhaps I heard somewhere, that it was our way of blocking out all of the distractions of the world to focus our attention wholly on God while we pray. And perhaps that is one truth of it. But the older I get, and the more I pray, the more I understand that it's more than that. 

Sometimes...sometimes, I close my eyes when I pray because I just can't do it any more; I need rest. 

God's is a comforting presence and sometimes, like a small child, I just need to let Him wrap me up in His arms and hold me so securely that I can't help but finally let go. I need to sink into Him a little, the way I sink into my bed when I crawl under my covers. I need everything to just stop hurting for just a minute, to just stop aching, to just stop wondering, to just stop questioning, to just...stop, and I need to rest. 

Have you ever had those moments? 

It's a hard way to pray, this prayer that comes from both stress and surrender. At the very same moment I'm trying just to breathe, I'm also trying to get all my words out before they escape me. I'm praying frantically because my need for rest is so great and at the same time, trying to embrace that very rest. It's like the prayer itself is pulling me in two opposite directions - the act of praying, the act of resting. 

Daughter, He whispers, do you not know that prayer is rest? And that rest is prayer?

It's hard for me to grasp, but in my heart, I know that it's true. Prayer is rest because it is the place where striving ceases. As much as I want to get prayer "right," as much as I'm prone to worry about the mechanics of my prayer, I know that at its heart, prayer is simply where I lay it all down. Prayer is where I stop trying so hard and admit that life is what it really is. 

And rest? Rest is prayer, and I know this, too, because rest is trust. It's a declaration of faith - that I know that right here, in God's presence, in God's arms, I am well. I am okay. Maybe it's not the prayer that my mind thinks I need to be making. Maybe it's not all the words that I think I need to say. Maybe it doesn't feel like praying at all, but it's what I desperately need. Just to be. Just to stop and to rest and to be. Just to be with my God. 

So sometimes, I close my eyes when I pray. Because I just can't do it any more. 

I need rest. 

Monday, May 11, 2015

Little Queen of Sheba

My great-grandmother was one of those quiet God-fearing people. As a heathen, I never really knew about her faith and never really conceptualized it. We didn't go to church together. We didn't talk about God. I learned a few old hymns on the piano for her, but to me, it was just music. These were just songs. 

Despite all that, my quiet God-fearing great-grandmother was speaking Truth over my life. It would take me another nearly twenty years to understand that.

You see, she always called me her "little Queen of Sheba." I always thought it had something to do with the big plastic purple glasses and bedazzled white purse I'd don with some dress-up high heels and gaudy costume jewelry. I always thought she was calling me a little queen, a small royal, someone of high and dignified stature. Some queen of some made-up place, some weird-named made-up place called Sheba, which would have been, I think, the only thing my great-grandmother would have said out loud to me that was made-up. 

If it actually was. 

As I've grown older, come to faith myself, and embraced the stories in the Bible, imagine my surprise to find that this Queen of Sheba was a real character. She was a real person. A real queen, sure, but her story is more than that. 

The Queen of Sheba travels long and far to see King Solomon. She has heard of his great wisdom and comes bearing extravagant gifts in order to hear a few nuggets of it. It's really quite the entourage she travels with. You can read about her in 1 Kings 10. 

The more I read her story, the more I think about my great-grandmother. She wasn't the type for fantasy, for fairy tales. She said what she meant and meant what she said, and I can't help but think that when she looked at me in those big plastic purple glasses, bedazzled white purse, dress-up high heels, and gaudy costume jewelry, she was looking right past those things and seeing something deeper. I was a peculiar child for sure (attire aside), but I can't help but wonder what she really saw in me.

I can't help but think, all these years later as I grow into my own faith, that my quiet God-fearing great-grandmother looked at me and saw a wealth of gifts that I would bring into this world. It's a sentiment I've heard often over the years - from teachers, from friends, from members of the congregation, from patients, from get the point. There have been a multitude who have complimented me on my gifts over the years, but only one who dared make them extravagant as these. 

And I can't help but think, too, that behind those big plastic purple sunglasses, my great-grandmother saw the eyes that were already searching for wisdom, that would come to a position in life where she would do whatever it takes to find such wisdom. And I've heard that often, too. That I am a young woman thirsting for wisdom, and possessing some measure of it, and that this is what makes me so dear to God and so blessed in my ministry. 

I don't say these things to toot my own horn. This is not meant to be a post about my gifts nor my wisdom, in whatever measure I may possess either (and the rumors have been grossly exaggerated). This is about what it means to be the kind of person who quietly speaks Truth over someone's life, whether they understand it or not. 

This is about the gift my great-grandmother has given me in these words.

I was privileged to grow up for a little over 10 years with her. She was an incredible woman who I am humbled to have had such time to learn from and to love. And I remember the way it used to make me feel when she'd call me that special name - her little Queen of Sheba - even though at the time, I didn't know. I didn't know that I wasn't the only queen of this funny-sounding land. I didn't know that this wasn't just some made-up great-grandma stuff. 

The older I get, the more it makes me feel that way - that way I used to feel with her - when I think about these words. When I think that when my great-grandmother looked at me, she saw more than just a little girl. She saw someone like this character in her beloved stories - someone with a wealth to bring into this world, someone who would seek wisdom at all costs. And I hope...and I pray...that in some small way, I've lived up to that. 

Today is the day after Mother's Day, 2015. It also would have been my great-grandmother's 108th birthday. So it seems today is an apt day to share this story, and to also say this:

Speak over someone's life. Tell them the stories. Tell them the truth. Say something meaningful about who they are. You never know when those words are going to come back to them in richest meaning, in beautiful grace. Your words may seem to be so small now, but you're planting big seeds. You're giving someone something to hold onto in themselves. In God. If you have the words, use them. As Toby Mac would say, speak life. 

You may never understand the incredible gift you're giving them.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Father, Son, and Holy Goat

We often refer to Jesus as both the Lamb of God and the sacrifice for our sins. But it turns out...these are two separate things. 

It struck me as I was reading Leviticus this week. If you look at the offerings prescribed for various situations in Israel, you see first that the male lamb is acceptable as a burnt offering, an aroma pleasing to the Lord, and as a fellowship offering. But "if someone brings a lamb as his offering for sin, he must bring a female." (4:32) Jesus is no female lamb. 

Does that make Him not the sin offering? Not quite. It just means, as the Lamb of God, He's no sin offering. 

He's a burnt offering, forever in God's presence a pleasing aroma. This cannot be overlooked. The aroma of His sacrifice covers the stench of man's fallen nature. He's a fellowship offering, providing a way for man to return to God. 

And I would even argue that He's still a sin offering. Not as God's Lamb, but as man's goat. 

In modern vernacular, a goat is someone you can get to take the fall for you. You can put more on his shoulders than he rightfully deserves. You can transfer your responsibility to him and get him to pay the price for you. It's someone who is often unaware he's being used (which is not the case for Jesus) or unwilling to stand up for himself (which is more closely He). 

Isn't that what sort of happened with Calvary? The Pharisees, the priests, the leaders, some of the Romans, the people all came together to get Jesus to take the fall for perceived wrongs. They put their insecurities on His head. They wrapped their stories into His. They told His story the way they wanted it told so that people would have a certain impression of Him. They made Him their goat, which, according to Leviticus 4 (prior to v. 32), is the acceptable, preferred offering for sin. A male goat with no defect.

Of course, there are interesting theological ideas that go along with this that we cannot ignore. If God sacrifices His Lamb as a pleasing aroma and a fellowship offering, but man makes that Lamb a Goat and leads it to the Cross, who is making the sacrifice? Are both man and God sacrificing here? What does that do to the gift of the Son as we know Him - if He is our offering? 

At the same time, when you look at the judgment scene in Matthew, you see the people declare that "His blood will be on our hands and our children's hands." So in some sense, the people knew that they were playing some role in this. (Although I'm not sure the vernacular of the goat goes back so far, and I'm not sure the people thought they were making a sacrifice here.) But it shows that the people were willing to accept their responsibility in leading Jesus to the Cross and in that sense, at least, they are responsible for bringing the sacrifice, whether they knew it or not. 

And it's entirely possible that man's goat became God's Lamb when He saw the sacrifice being made and chose to transform it into a burnt offering and a fellowship offering. But that leaves sin standing. (Which, of course, is not so troubling as we live in a world of sin and very well know this.) 

As you can see, I don't have any clean answers for this. It's just something I'm throwing around in my head and thought I would share. Anyone else have a thought?

Thursday, May 7, 2015

God of the Fallen

Yesterday, we talked about how God has made provision for the poor in prescribing second sacrifices for those who cannot afford the first. But what about the God who provides for...the fallen?

This is where it gets interesting.

We know that Satan is a fallen angel, and we're fairly familiar with the few scenes in the Bible where God and Satan go at it. There's Job, of course, where God hands His faithful servant over to Satan, with some limitations, to show that this is, indeed, a righteous man. And then, in the Gospel, there is the scene where Satan is allowed to tempt Jesus. Satan is accursed, but he's not forgotten. God keeps giving him these opportunities. 

But I'm not talking about Satan. I'm talking about a lesser-known character: Azazel. 

We see Azazel in Leviticus 16, where Moses is giving instructions for making peace with the Lord. This peace requires the sacrifice of a bull and a goat, each of which has its portions set aside for the Lord and its portions set aside for the priests. There's a second goat, though, too. This is the "scapegoat" (which is actually a real thing). The priest is to put his hands on the head of this scapegoat and thereby transfer the sins of the people onto the animal. Then, a designated man will lead this goat into the desert and release it, allowing the sins of the people to wander away from them.

In Leviticus 16, this goat is released not only into the desert, but "in the desert to Azazel." (v. 10) A few verses earlier, we see that this is no accident or afterthought: God has ordained this goat to be "chosen" for Azazel.

Because apparently, even fallen angels need to eat.

It's just amazing to me. We think about this God who, sure, is the stuff dreams are made of. Heaven, streets of gold, redemption, mercy, grace. But this has also been the God of our nightmares. Hell, fire, brimstone, weeping, gnashing of teeth, eternal damnation. He's not a God whose bad side you want to get on. Not to hear the preachers tell it. 

Yet here we have this angel, this fallen angel, who for everything we've read about condemnation ought to be the furthest thing from God's mind. He ought to be completely cut off. He ought to be in the bottomless pit. He ought to be long ago mourned and forgotten. Forsaken, even. And God's giving him a goat. Not just once, but once a year. On a continuing basis. For as long as the people are sacrificing to God, they are commanded to give also one goat to Azazel. 

Now, I'm not sure you can live really on one goat per year, but it's something, right?

And what an incredible encouragement it is to those of us who spend so much of our lives fallen. Not on purpose, I don't think, but it happens to the best of us. We're down and out sinners. No two ways about it. And it's easy to feel sometimes like we're cut off, trapped in a pit, long ago mourned and forgotten. Forsaken, even. 

But God, in His infinite grace, is still making provision for us, the fallen. We see it here in Azazel; it is no less true in us. 

God takes care of His angels. Even the fallen ones. 

God takes care of His saints. Even the fallen ones. 

God takes care of His people. 

Even the fallen ones.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

God of the Poor Man

Leviticus provides us a listing of the old law, which contains several offerings that must be made to God and the atonement procedures for sin and uncleanness. Most of these require rams, lambs, bulls, goats, and other large livestock. But there's also generally another set of possible offerings, often birds, and they always begin this way:

But if you cannot afford [the listed offering]...

And this is one of the things I love about God. He doesn't price Himself out of the market.

There is, for sure, a high cost for faithfulness. Anyone who has made a decision for God in the face of culture knows that. And just reading this list of rules in Leviticus reminds us that we have it fairly easy today. The price is still high, don't get me wrong. But God puts the emphasis where it's meant to be.

On the act, not the object, of sacrifice.

See, it doesn't much matter to God whether you sacrifice a ram. He understands that not everyone has a ram, and even those that do may not have a ram suitable for sacrifice. Yes, this is the preferred offering, the prescribed offering, but if God staunchly requires a ram, He cuts Himself off from His own people when they do not have, or cannot afford, a ram. That's not who God is. 

So He's given us this second set of rules, too. If you cannot afford a ram (or a goat or a lamb or a bull or whatever), bring Me something cheap. Bring Me a couple of birds. Bring Me a dusting of flour. Bring Me something. Because what's most important is the act of sacrifice.

What's most important is that we're willing to come to God at all. That we turn back toward Him when we've done something wrong or broken the covenant. That we're not afraid to stand before Him, declare our guilt, and atone for our sin. That we're seeking Him at all costs, even at small costs when that's all we can afford, and that we're working on this relationship. That we're interested in this relationship. That we keep coming to Him. We can't do that as sinners or as unclean men and women, and so He's made a way for even the poorest among us to still come Home. 

Isn't that amazing?

I am not a person of means. I don't have a lot of money just lying around. I read some of these rules and regulations in the old law, and it's easy for me to see that I'm one of those people that, outside of the grace of the poor man's sacrifice, could easily be unclean forever. How am I ever supposed to scrape together enough money to buy a ram? I'm just trying to put food on the table! 

But I could probably afford a couple of birds. The New Testament tells us just how cheap the birds were. I could find enough odd jobs for that, and then all of a sudden, there's a way for me to come back. There's a way for me to stand before God again. I'm so incredibly thankful.

Now, I know, we're not living under the old law any more. None of this really matters in any practical terms. Except that it does show us what kind of God we serve. He's a God who has always made a way for everybody to come to Him. He's a God who does not neglect the poor. He's a God who welcomes all. In the Tabernacle, by accepting an offering of pigeons even when rams seem better. In the streets, by preaching on hills and healing blind men and calling men out of trees. Even in Jesus, He never set Himself apart for those who could find a way; He set about finding them. Making a way for them to come to Him because He wasn't hiding. 

We'd do well to remember that. For the poverty in each of us and the poor among us. 

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Toward Canaan

There's one more truth we need to consider about the God who lead in smoke and fire. Particularly, in smoke. And that is this:

Guided by smoke, it's hard to ever really know where you're going.

This is one of the things that frustrates us most about God, I think. He's willing to give us promises like Canaan - dreams of lands flowing with milk and honey, grand ideas about what the future is going to look like. One day. And then He stands in front of us in obscuring smoke so no matter how hard we strain our eyes, we can never quite see the Promised Land. 

All we can see is smoke.

And what's behind that smoke? It could be nearly anything. It could be the land of the Nephilim - people so tall we cower in their mere presence. These are the people who will come against us, who we will be afraid to stand up to, who will seem to block our progress toward the promised things. 

It could be the mountains. Obstacles we'll have to overcome. Things we'll have to climb. Despite what the Bible says about faith, no one has ever moved a mountain. Not a real one, anyway. So when we come upon the mountains, we have to either scale them or go around; there is no other way. Masked in smoke, so often, we don't know we've come upon one until we're halfway up. Then we look around and wonder how we got here.

It could be just wilderness. Just flat, vacant land that feels like nothingness. It's emptiness. It's never-ending. It stretches before us in this vast expanse until we lose all hope of the Promise at all. There is no future ahead, just more of today. Just more of the same. 

It would be nice to know when these troubles are coming. When seemingly-large people are going to stand in our way, when there are going to be mountains to climb, when vast expanses will stretch before us, taunting in their emptiness. It would be nice to know because these are the things that dim our hopes of Canaan. These are the things that make us wonder if we heard right. Is there a Promise at all?

But no. We rarely see the obstacles. There's far too much smoke.

This is where faith comes in.

The challenge, and the invitation, of God is this: can you keep putting one foot in front of the other with nothing but a Promise? Will you? Are you willing to keep walking toward what you cannot see, knowing only that all that you do see is...God? 

That's the beauty of this. It doesn't matter where Canaan lay. It doesn't matter what may stand in the way. Yes, the smoke bothers us. It obscures our line of sight. But never forget this: you can still see the smoke. You can still see God. He's right there, leading the way. Can you...will you...take one more faithful step toward Him? That's all He's asking for. 

And for what it's worth, yes. There is a Canaan.

Monday, May 4, 2015


God led His people Israel through the wilderness in two forms: smoke and fire. And at one point, in Exodus 14, as the Egyptian army approached in hot pursuit, He stopped leading Israel and came to stand behind them - between them and the approaching Egyptians. When He did this, He did it in smoke.

I probably would have preferred fire.

Because let's face it: smoke doesn't scare too many armies away. They press through and keep pursuing until they come to the battlefield. Smoke may have even looked just like dust kicked up. Not a big deal. Fire, on the other hand. Fire is going to turn those horses back. Fire is going to stop an army dead in its tracks. Nobody can just pass through fire and keep going. At the very worst, it makes the Egyptians pause. At best, it sends them running. So for what it's worth, if the God who comes through smoke and fire decides to stand between me and a pursuing army, I'd rather have Him stand in fire. I'm going to feel safer that way. 

But the smoke does something, too, and maybe that was the point. It was never God's intention to turn the Egyptians back. He never says that was His plan. His plan was always to show His glory through the unfolding events, and what greater glory than a thousand drowned chariots? What greater glory than an army who is no longer a threat? What greater glory than real victory? Decided defeat? 

In the meantime, however, there's Israel. There's a people on the move, somewhere between here and there. Somewhere between Egypt and Canaan. Unsure of how much further they're going. Unsure of how they're going to get there. Unsure of their ability to encounter other people. And their God, who has been leading them, now stands behind them. The world lies open before them but it's just an expanse. Behind them, the thunder of an approaching army. An intimidating army. Horses, chariots, soldiers. None of which they can see any longer.

Because God in His infinite wisdom has just set up a smokescreen.

His presence in fire may have turned the Egyptians away, but His presence in smoke turns Israel's eyes. Either they look in front of them and see the Promised Land or they look behind them and see the presence of God. 

What approaching army?

It's brilliant, really. No matter where the wandering nation looks, they see God. Either in Promise or in Presence. Sure, they probably still hear the thunder. They probably still hear the sound of hooves and chariots. But between those hooves and chariots and the timid nation, there stands a powerful God. A God who is poised in smoke not only to shield His people but to take the breath right out of the approaching army. God before us, God behind us. Whom shall we fear? 

I'm prone to want a God in fire who will turn my enemies away. But there's something about a God of smoke, too. He's a God who ensures that no matter where my eyes may look, I can see only Him. Before me. Behind me. In Promise and in Presence. There He is. Wherever I need Him to be. Between me and the approaching armies, in my own in-between from Canaan to Egypt, from here to there. A smokescreen at its finest.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Got Your Back

God does something beautiful in Exodus 14, and I don't know how many times I've read right past it.

The Israelites have come out of Egypt and are headed for the Promised Land. God is leading them, guiding them by His presence in a column of smoke by day, a column of fire by night. pulling up the rear.

Pharaoh's suddenly seemed to realize that his entire work force is gone. Just...gone. They've all taken off for the desert and taken everything they own with him. His building projects, his social structure, the provision he's made through Israel for his own people are all threatened now that this entire nation of people is gone. And he's going after them.

At the sound of thundering hooves, Israel turns around and sees the chariots in hot pursuit, stirring up dust with every approaching step. They turn forward and see the column of smoke and know...this is the way we're supposed to go. And then...the smoke moves.

The presence of God circles back and stands behind the Israelite camp. 

Now what?

There's room for more than a little misunderstanding here. If you've been following the smoke for awhile now, and God's told you that this is His presence leading you, you're probably tempted to follow the smoke still. You're looking at God circle around behind you, right between you and the pursuing Egyptian army. And maybe you're thinking God is leading you into battle. He's leading you to a place where you have that final showdown. Israel vs. Egypt. Right here in the desert. If you continue to follow the column of smoke, this is where you end up. 

But Israel doesn't do that. They don't engage Egypt here, and I think that's somewhat strange. Because I don't see any indication from God, or from the smoke, that they shouldn't continue to follow Him. God doesn't tell them that He's shifted positions and He's no longer standing in front of them.

The Scriptures tell us that, though. 

The Scriptures tell us not that God was guiding them into battle, but that He had circled around merely to protect them. It says not that He had positioned Himself for war, but that He had positioned Himself for peace. Exodus says, "The column of smoke stood between Israel and Egypt." Between them. As a barrier. As God's way of saying, yes, the chariots are coming, but they have to come through Me. 

And it's not gonna happen.

It's beautiful, really, and here's why: because as much as we love the God who goes before us, who guides the way to the Promised Land, and as much as we love the God who stands beside us, as He will do very soon in the Tabernacle, there's something incredible about the God who stands behind us, too. The God who is willing to back us up. 

That's what He's doing here. He's saying, not only do I love you, not only have I promised you something greater, not only are we going somewhere together, but I stand behind you. One hundred percent. Whenever you need Me backing you up, here I am. Ready to stand between you and whatever powerful army approaches. You just keep looking toward Canaan. I've got this. I've got you.

I've got your back.

Thanks, God.