Monday, November 17, 2008

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Friday, June 20, 2008

She'll Be Coming Round the Mountain

She’ll be comin round the mountain when she comes,
She’ll be comin round the mountain when she comes,
She’ll be comin round the mountain,
She’ll be comin round the mountain,
She’ll be comin round the mountain when she comes.

I’ve heard that song over and over and over through my life. Seems like a silly song but there’s something in the repetition and rhythm that makes is stick out in my mind. At different times in my life, the song has brought to mind different images.

This morning it makes me think of the person who caught in a particular trial. In the midst of their frustration they exclaim, “I’ve gone around this mountain several times. I wish I could learn my lesson and move on.” I know that person because I’ve been that person more than once.

Whether in the areas of finances or job or friendships, I’ve often felt like I was circling, re-circling and circling the mountain yet again. Driving up the side of a mountain on a swtichback road has a similar feel. I see the same sights again and again, but each time I see them from a higher altitude.

It might just be that when we feel like we circling round the mountain again and again that we could be repeating a pattern but at a higher altitude each time. So we’re not really in the same place, we’re actually moving higher and higher.

Sometimes I’ve drawn two diagrams on a board to demonstrate the way many Christians perceive the spiritual life. Some might think of it as a gradual incline leading higher and higher and higher to a peak, which is the place of glorification. Depending on their tradition, this promise of glorification may happen before or after death.

Other Christians might think of their life more like a line pointing up breaking through a barrier to reach a plateau where the life of faith is lived in fullness. A key event marks this breakthrough—usually either their initial salvation experience or a secondary experience of the Spirit’s infilling. Their “testimony” normally will consist of discussing the events prior to the moment of breakthrough and the dramatic impact the breakthrough had on their life.

I think both of these pictures are helpful in thinking about different aspects of a spiritual journey but I might also suggest that, “She’ll be comin round the mountain” offers a third and valuable image as well.

The image of a circling a mountain with a gradual incline captures the image of repeated patterns in our life. I would suggest that one aspect of growth in our lives can be characterized by a series of repeated patterns.

One way to explain this understanding is to consider the seasons of the year. Each year we pass through spring, summer, fall and winter. Then the seasons are repeated. And again. And again. And again throughout our lives.

If we don’t move every year, this repeated pattern of seasons in our region will be layered into our memories. Certain smells, sights and experiences of the different seasons will bring back memories of past seasons. Driving with my window down in late spring often takes me instantly back to 1982 and my senior year in high school.

We may associate certain activities with certain seasons. For example, we may connect vacations with summer; football with fall; hot chocolate with winter; and flower gardens with spring. But we don’t have to do the same thing every season.

Some years, I may chose to follow the birds and fly south in the winter. Other years, I may head north to a snowy mountain and ski slopes for the winter. In other words, I experience the repeated pattern of the season, but I am free to improvise my response much like a jazz musician might do with a standard.

In addition to the repeated patterns, we impose a calendar upon our year with repeated celebration or patterns. Many Americans might celebrate Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, and the Fourth of July regardless of their religion.

Add to the big four a series of lesser holidays and we have a repeated holiday in most months of the year. Add to those celebrations the personal celebrations in the lives of our friends and families like birthdays and anniversaries. Then add the weekly worship services, yearly VBS, graduations, weddings and more.

Soon we discover that our life is filled with repeated patterns.

I would suggest that we learn through repeated patterns. Just as our calendar reflects this rhythm, our personal lives reflect seasons of learning. There are times when we may actively learn and other times when we may actively create and other times when we may focus on serving or relationships or prayer or mission’s work.

These seasons of intensity and focus may repeat again and again. But each time, we may remember our previous experiences and lessons from the past to play upon our experience now.

We may also pass through repeated seasons of joy and sorrow, struggle and victory, grief and comfort, conflict and forgiveness and so on. But just like the jazz standard or the repeating seasons, we don’t have to respond to the same rhythms in the same way.

One year during lent, I meditated upon the joy of the Lord. This taught me the pattern of joy in suffering. When I find myself in the midst of a repeated trial, I am free to choose a different way to respond. Jack Taylor once told the story of his son growing through grave financial difficult. In response, the family had a celebration.

This decision to alter their response to something depressing and discouraging could then give them fresh eyes and perspective to the struggle and possibly see new opportunities ahead.

So today, I think I’ll rejoice that, “She’ll be comin round the mountain when she comes.” I may think I’m coming back round the mountain, but I know I’m moving upward to a place of glory. So I can improvise respond in new ways, bring new expectations to this similar season.

And even in the midst of my current circumstances, whether good or bad, I can rejoice and know that my faithful Savior is leading on the path. And in the end, he present me as blameless before the Father.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Rhiannon and the Pursuit of Woman

Bobi Jones captures the one of the Welsh myths from the Mabinogion in verse with his poem Rhiannon. This love story centers on the pursuit of a woman by a man over hills and into mist. No matter how fast his servant or his horse travel, Pwyll cannot reach the object of his affection. In desperation, he calls out to her and she stops and tells her tale and ends up marrying him.

When he beholds this vision of beauty, Pwyll proclaims,

She was dew: if the mournful sun should dare
attempt to lure her away, it would not deserve to dawn.

Then Jones' poem (in Pwyll's voice) describes the rapturous vision of Rhiannon by saying,

To see her like precious life fleeting away,
Nervous maidenhood raining along her shoulders
And everyone slaking his thirst in watch her:
As smoothly as blood in a vein she glided
On the white stallion-heart through the morning mist.
How shall one sing her purity?...Not like one
Moving in the outer world was her going,
Unless like a breeze softly wooing the ear,
Like a shadow of waters slanting the mind.

Is she a goddess? Is she a human? Has she crossed over from a thin place? Reading Jones' poem the other day, I was struck by how vision of Rhiannon mixes physical attraction with spiritual longing. In the woman, he beholds something, someone that touches him deeper than simple lust for the other.

In Rhiannon, Jones's stirred me to think of a vision beyond the Celtic myth to the pursuit of woman. Why do men respond the shape, movement, touch, smell, and voice of woman? The powerful warrior is powerless before such beauty. The intellectual falls dumbstruck in the presence of woman. Is this not part of the mystery of Song of Solomon and the passion between David and Bathsheba.

Then as I reflected on this response to the beauty of woman, I was moved by the decision of God to reveal his relationship with humans in the context of man pursuing woman. This pursuit is not the violent conquest of predator but of the Prince running toward His beloved in the folds of a misty morning.

In the midst of the pursuit, He speaks and His words capture the heart of the maiden.

With all our books about pursuing God and our songs about our love for God, we must not forget the real story. Our feeble responses and pursuits are but dim reflections of a God who runs to His bride. Though she seems to elude Him, He runs straight through the curse of sin and death to pursue His beloved. Then He speaks but a word and she, we, His people are overwhelmed by a love beyond knowing.

Again and again we fall back into His faithful loving arms, and by His grace we are learning to trust the Lover who defines the eseence of love by selling all that He has (giving up His life) to purchase the pearl of great price.

Tomorrow when I arise, I would do well to remember Jones' poem Rhiannon and expect the Lover of my soul to pursue me through the hills and valleys of my wandering life.

Sunday, May 25, 2008


I fear that our generation is like a ship of sailors lost at sea who stare at the water day after day to try and get their bearings. Looking out from their boat in all four directions, they see water. They don’t lack water. But the endless fields of water cannot show them where they are or where they are headed. Without some orientation, they cannot navigate through this ocean of chaos.

Our generation enjoys news twenty-four hours a day both on television and on the web. We can know virtually anything about anything with a click on the computer. We can download sermons in every style and flavor. We can hear music, watch movies, see college courses and learn almost anything through our computers and TVs, and yet we grow more foolish, more blind, and more deaf.

We are stumbling in the dark and we cannot see what makes us stumble. We are a dis-oriented and we live among dis-oriented people. So how do we regain proper orientation? I thought I’d look up that word to try and understand what it really means.

The root of the word orientation is orient (meaning east, rising sun), which comes from the Latin oriri (meaning to rise, rising sun, to be born, to appear). The root of the word makes me think about my beginning, my birth. I had a starting point. I haven’t always been here. As Bruce Cockburn says, I’ve “never seen everything.”

The Scripture reveals that I’ve been created in the image of God; that he formed me in my inmost parts; that he knows me inside and out; that he created for His good pleasure and glory; that in Him I live and move and have my being. So this root of orientation makes me consider properly my beginning.

Orientation comes from orient and it is an architectural term that originally indicated the way churches were built facing East (Jerusalem, Rising Son). The medieval world looked to Jerusalem as the center of the world and the east provided proper orientation. Their maps reflect this believe as east not north is the top of the map (and Jerusalem is in the center of the map).

Medieval churches were built so that the altars faced the east. Thus every time the people of God gathered to hear the Word of God and break the bread and drink the wine, they faced east toward Jerusalem.

Eating the bread and drinking the wine was remembering the covenant of God with His people made in the body of Jesus Christ. The Lord’s table was a way of looking back to His death on the cross and looking forward to a meal that was to come: the marriage supper of the lamb when all God’s people from across the ages would be gathered together in a city of love. Their worship physically pointed them toward the end of all things: New Jerusalem.

As I consider the rich history of this word orientation, I come to realize that proper orientation requires us to understand our beginning from our end. John the Apostle reveals this orientation point only in Jesus. He is the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.

In his gospel, John also writes, “All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made.” So we look to Jesus as the author and finisher of our faith. Only then can we discover an orienting point.

So when we try to make sense of our lives and make decisions about the future or even try to understand the past, we cannot ignore Jesus as the center point. To ignore Him is to misunderstand. To ignore Him is to stumble in the dark.

I realize that this must sound insane to those who reject Him. Paul suggested that it is foolishness to the world. So I will be a fool in this world by orienting my life according to the fixed point, the person of Jesus Christ.

It is not the newspaper or the web or even the latest Christian book that will give me bearings in this ocean of chaos but the slow, intentional turning of my mind and heart to Jesus. By His Spirit, the Bible becomes an ever fuller unveiling of Jesus. Like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, I am gradually learning to see and hear my Savior.

And just as the sailor who uses longitude and latitude to move through the sea, I turn my eyes to Him in His Word, His commands, His people. Most of my steps forward still appear unclear like walking across choppy waves as far as the eye can see. But I rest that He is leading the way, and I will arrive at the New Jerusalem in time for the feast.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Taking the Name in Vain

Israel is under attack yet again from the daring and fierce Philistines. Crushed by terrorizing force of this battle ready tribe, the Israelites decide that it's time to use the awesome force of YHWH against these invaders. They call upon the ungodly guardians of the doorway (Eli's unpriestly sons) to extract YHWH from the tabernacle and bring His presence onto the battlefield.

As the Philistines spy the ark entering the camp and hear the shouts and frenzied joy of the Israelites, they feel a terror deep in the bowels. Should we proceed or run from this god who struck down the mighty Egypt? Choosing to be strong and courageous (much like Joshua's army of old), the Philistines mount attack on the camp of YHWH and are victorious.

There is no victory shout among God's people. There's is not terror like the terror of God's warriors overcoming Jericho. Instead, the wicked priests fall dead and the fallen people shrink in absolute defeat. Eli dies hearing the news and Eli's daughter-in-law names the desolate birth of her dying womb Ichabod: the glory has been taken away.

God's glory falls into captivity and made to serve before the great god Dagon. Or is He? The God who brought an end to Eli's rule; the God who killed Hophni and Phineas for their mockery of His holy name strikes out at the breathless image, breaking the head and hands and forcing obeisances even to the image of this false god.

Soon the captive YHWH reigns plagues upon these oppressors, and the Philistines fall before the terror of a holy God. Just like the soon to be destroyed Pharaoh sent Israel out from the land, the Philistines send out the ark with gold and treasure upon an ox cart.

YHWH is not captive to the rule of the wicked or the false worship of the chosen. He is not captive to the wisdom of the men whether among the counsels of the wicked or the courts of the godly. All fall down before his glory, his word, his holy reign.

Forgetting their high and holy calling, the Levites of Kirjath Jearim assume they have a right to handle the holy. And terror destroys the people. Instead of crying out for mercy, they send YHWH on his way.

In the midst of YHWH's travel, Samuel calls upon the people of God to humble themselves before Him, to forsake their false gods and to return to His covenantal rule. Israel falls before the holy call and responds in the only proper way to the Holy God: "Lord, we have sinned against you. Have mercy!"

As the people humble themselves, the holy power of God arises. Not limited to a mere box, God rests upon his servant Samuel and the enemies of the people of God are crushed. The Philistines fall before the Lord who remembers His people.

As we plan and plot our crusades, our towering temples, and glorious growth plans, may we fall down before the holy God. His name will be Holy among His people. And those who are not broken before our covenantal King, will be crushed. Lord have mercy on your people. Forgive the mockery of your commandments, the sin that runs rampant at the gate of the house of the Lord and the presumption that you must do our bidding. Lord have mercy. May your glory be raised high as a banner before your people.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

No other gods!

I've been writing and reflecting some on the 10 Commandments over at Doug Watching. Here is a meditation I wrote trying to explore one aspect of the first word.

No other gods! The command shatters the illusion of our successes, revealing us as enslaved by the idols we worship and serve. Even as I hear the words, I know: I am an idolater.

In my pursuit of God, I’ve often looked to the places of provision as the person of provision. But God alone is the person of our provision. He alone will meet our needs.

I am a needy person. I need more than just food and clothes. I need to feel like I have value. I need to find pleasure. I need peace in my heart. I need answers the questions that plague my mind. I need friendships. I need to opportunity to grow and to explore and to learn and to laugh. Many of these needs are intangible and difficult to define, and yet if the need is not met, I may struggle to even make through the day.

Take peace of mind for instance. When I left college, I entered a dark night of the soul where the peace of God seemed to depart, and I felt alone. My circumstances had not changed. I still had food and clothes and income and family, and yet inwardly I felt like my whole world was crumbling apart.

I’ve come to think that we have far more needs that we can even name. Some needs seem selfish like the need to enjoy. And yet, the kingdom of God is righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. We are created for joy. And for much more. For every need we have, He is the one true provider.

He created us and formed us to trust Him to meet all our needs—even our needs to become like Him and to love completely. He is the person of provision for all our needs, and yet He is free to use different people and places as He sees fit.

We could mistake the people or the place as the one actually meeting the meet. Israel did this time and again. In Egypt, they eventually worshipped the gods of the land. Egypt was the place of provision but YHWH was the person of provision. As they prepared to enter the Promised Land, God told them that they would enjoy a fruitful, prosperous land much like Eden.

But they must never forget that YHWH is the one who provided their needs in that land, or else they would fall subject to enslavement and judgment. God raised them up to bless them and make them a blessing for the nations, but He warned them not worship any other gods.

No other gods! Violating this command means trusting something other then God and falling prey to the control of something other than god. It makes us less than human. We no longer have the power to bless because we are enslaved. Violating this command begins a cascade of violating other commands.

I know this pattern all to well because of my own tendency to worship other gods. In teaching me to trust, God has often invited me into a season of testing when one or more of my needs seem to be ignored. Instead of crying out to God, I’ve looked to the places or the people where God met my needs in the past. Instead of trusting Him as my Creator, I found myself trusting in His creation or creatures. And they will always fail me.

When I cannot trust God alone as my provider, I may look to the person beside me and wonder why they have what I don’t have. So I fall prey to coveting. Then I may grow bitter toward them and even speak words that are unkind about them: bearing false witness.

One by one I begin violating each command: thoughts of self pity, anger, lust, consume me. Created to be a king and priest in the land, I can no longer serve and bless a world in need. I am now corrupt in my thoughts, bitter in my heart, and violating the command to love God and love man. My only hope is to cry out in repentance and ask God to restore to me that simple trust in His provision.

In his goodness, He does restore. He is teaching and training us to be a people with no other Gods. In the end, this command becomes a great blessing. It is the blessing of being cared for by a Covenant God. It is the blessing of the lilies of the field. I can learn to trust. Simply. Like a child.

And as I child, I can be free. Free from inhibitions caused by fear of embarrassment or failure. I can be free to love, to risk, to play, to try new things. Free to bless the people all around me, sinner and saint alike, pointing them all to the ever-flowing provision of our Covenant God.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

A Gift with Strings Attached

Meditations on the Ten Commandments

Last weekend, a small group of folks joined me for a retreat about meditating on the Ten Commandments. This retreat started out as a weekend focused on the discipline of meditation. In the past, I’ve led similar retreats and explored the tradition of prayer and reflection upon God’s Word. But in preparation for the retreat, I soaked in Psalm 119 and felt impressed to follow the model of meditation presented in the Psalm: meditation upon the Law and particularly upon the 10 Commandments or Testimonies of God.

Now I realize the retreat was barely scratching the surface and I plan to spend more time reflecting upon the riches of the 10 Commandments. Here is the first in a series:

The Gift with Strings Attached
As we enjoy April Fool’s Day what better way to celebrate than with a few thoughts on God’s wisdom that is foolishness to man.

I’ve always thought that a real gift should have “no strings attached.” Otherwise, the gift seems to be more like a way to control another person. I give them a gift with hope of controlling them in some form. Thus the strings are like puppet strings used to make a person act in the way I move the strings.

And yet, God gives a gift with strings attached.

After years of crying out for deliverance from the cruel hand of Pharaoh, the Israelites finally see God’s answer in His strong hand of deliverance. He breaks the chains of bondage and promises a gift of a land, flowing with milk and honey: a new Eden where they can prosper and enjoy the goodness of the Lord.

This promised gift comes with strings attached. This gift comes with 10 Commandments that form the basis of a Law that will govern every detail of their world from social events to worship to family life. These laws are given with expectation that blessing will follow obedience and cursing will follow disobedience.

So promises of land comes with certain expectations. At first, this doesn’t seem like much of a gift. But it might also be seen as a gift the is so precious that it’s value can only be realized in and through these expectations.

Consider the gift of an engagement ring. A young man offers his girlfriend the gift of ring that symbolizes their relationship and commitment to one another. If she accepts the gift, she is also accepting the offer of marriage. In other words, the gift comes with certain expectations or “strings attached.”

When the girl accepts the gift, it is often though of as the most precious gift in her possession--even if it is merely a “cigar band.” The expectations of covenant relationship make the gift a priceless treasure.

On Mount Sinai, YHWH offers Israel a gift with strings attached. The Ten Commandments will forever stand as a sign of covenant love between him and his chosen people. By accepting the gift, they discover strings that reach back to the heart of a loving God. The bond or covenant between the people and God is so intimate that it is often likened to that of a marriage.

And thus in the giving of the Law, we discover the very picture of Christ and the Church, and His precious gift of love to redeem His bride.

Let us embrace the strings of His love and rejoice that He has bound us to Him by writing the Law of God upon our hearts of flesh—just as He promised.