Saturday, May 26, 2012

The Mission in the Mirror*

Like David, I groan under the weight of blasphemy and scorn,
of assaults on my faith that come day and night,

    my adversaries taunt me,
while they say to me all the day long,
    "Where is your God?"

Where are you, God, while they mock?  
Should I be oppressed while they laugh with glee?
The doubts within echo the atheist taunts, 
but meet faith in my heart and cry out in prayer:

I say to God, my rock:

    "Why have you forgotten me?
Why do I go mourning
    because of the oppression of the enemy?"
As with a deadly wound in my bones...

 What if they are right, and there is no You? 
Worse yet, what if there is a You, but You don't care about me? 
You, my God, are my only hope!  
I have nothing apart from You.

As a deer pants for flowing streams,
    so pants my soul for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God,
    for the living God.

If  I could just hear your voice, louder than mocking,
If I could see your face and know that when You look at me You smile.
The aching would cease and the tears turn to joy.

When shall I come and appear before God?
My tears have been my food
 day and night,
while they say to me all the day long,
    "Where is your God?"

The face I see is mine, in the mirror.
It reminds me of life before I knew You.
It takes me back through days and weeks,
through years of protection and answered prayers.

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

I see the lives transformed, mine and others, the souls set free
and remember your faithfulness through the darkest of times,
I look into the windows of my eyes and wonder:

Why are you cast down, O my soul,
    and why are you in turmoil within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
    my salvation and my God.

*  A reflection on Psalm 42

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Long Dark Night

"...they who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength;
they shall mount up with wings like eagles..." (Isaiah 40:31a)

In spite of the medication the nurses gave her to sleep, she lay awake all night, crying out to God, praying, and crying some more.  Even the pills could not drug it away.  The truth of her situation could no longer be denied.  She was never going home again.  This place was her home now.  She had been here for weeks, sinking into herself, dying.

It depressed her: the woman carrying the giant crazy stuffed bird-thing everywhere, even to meals; the hunched  man in a ball-cap wheeling from room to room, even in the wee small hours of the morning, mindless; the rest lined up in front of the nurses' station, waiting for something, anything, to happen; the cold coffee; the dry cake.  Stuck for the rest of life in this hole, waiting to die.

Morning overtook the long dark night and brought with it a gift, a friend.  She wept prayers into her open arms. Two huddled praying against the horrors of life, old age, and death.

 "'You are my servant,
I have chosen you and not cast you off';
fear not, for I am with you;
be not dismayed, for I am your God;
I will strengthen you, I will help you,
I will uphold you with my righteous hand." (Isaiah 41:9b,10)

She combed her hair and looked around.  Who were these people?  Her roommates, that's right.  She would learn their names now, work hard to remember them. She would tell them about Jesus. She would put on her glasses for the first time in weeks and open her Bible.  What day was it?  Wednesday?  Another friend comes on Wednesday. She fixed her hair.  She would recognize her friend this time, and remember her name.  She would be ready to go for a walk.  She would remember again how to play their favorite game.  She would tell this friend of God's kindness, how He had not forgotten her in the dark weeks of her soul. She would tell her how, in the praying arms of a friend, He had filled her heart with hope.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012


I remember well that age when my children began asking "Why?"

Now, I'm not referring to that cute and occasionally annoying toddler stage that little ones go through as soon as they learn that a "Why?" guarantees some kind of response.  At that age, I'm not even sure they understand what they are asking.  I do believe, however, such repeated questioning lays the foundation for understanding logic, and for future decision-making.  It also represents the early stages of understanding that other people are, well, other people. These are the innocent beginnings of a quest for understanding.

No, the asking "Why?" I have in mind comes later, and is less innocent.  This "Why?" is asked not to gain understanding so much as to gain an advantage.  This "Why?" is asked with the intent of getting around the will of other person - usually a parent, teacher, or other authority figure.

"It's time to do your homework,"  Mommy says.

"Why?" replies Precious One.

"Because it's not going to do itself," chirps Mommy.

"But, why can't I do it later?"

"Because if you don't do it now, you'll be too tired later, or you may not have enough time to finish before bedtime," answers Mommy.

"But I'm not at all tired, and I know it's easy work.  It'll only take a little while...."

You get the idea. The point of the child's questioning here is not to gain understanding, per se.  The point is that the child does not want to do homework. The question is a tool to get out of doing it, to draw out reasons which can then be shot down, undermining the position of the authority, and hopefully weakening their resolve. Any understanding gained will only be used to further the argument and hopefully gain the upper hand.

It's been a while since I've had little ones at home, but I still hear my share of this kind of questioning.  Sadly, I now hear it all too often from Christians, and it is usually directed at God, and His Word.  The questions are asked to undermine His character, or the reliability of His word and so to justify disregarding or disobeying it.

There is an innocent "Why?"  It is the "Why?" of belief.  There is a sinful  "Why?" It is the "Why?" of unbelief.  The "Why?" of belief seeks understanding. It wants to know God better. It also respects his authority. It is willing to accept His response and, if it is a directive, obey it.  It is also willing to accept when God does not, for whatever reason, see fit to offer an explanation.  The "Why?" of unbelief seeks reasons and excuses to disregard God and His word.

Do you have a "Why?" for God today?  Which kind of "Why?" is it?

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Jesus, My Joy

Paul and I feel blessed to attend a church whose pastor also happens to be a violinist with our local symphony. This past Sunday evening our usual service was preempted by our local chamber choral's performance of Bach's, Jesu, Meine Freude (Jesus, My Joy), and Haydn's, Heiligmesse.  Our pastor would be performing with the orchestra, but rather than just having someone else substitute for him at church, he cancelled the service and urged us all to attend the concert instead.  Then he took the opportunity to give us a lesson in music appreciation, and much more.  He dedicated the Sunday evening service a week prior to walking us through Bach's motet, explaining its structure, background, and rich meaning.  He left us with hearts aching to see such dedication to creating art for the glory of God revived in His church in our times, and really, really excited for the upcoming performance.

And, on a geeky note, as a person who likes very much to interact in my own writing with the writings of others, I was tickled to learn that  in Jesu, Meine Freude was Bach's own interaction with an existing hymn by the same name written by Johann Franck.  Bach begins with Franck's text and weaves it together with passages from the eighth chapter of Romans, blending a sermon with music which will deliver it straight to the heart.

On the evening of the concert, which was held at the Catholic church downtown, Paul and I were so eager that we got there 50 minutes early. This gave us plenty of time to read the program, which provided historical background as well as the English translation of Bach's German and Haydn's Latin.  I knew that Bach was a Lutheran and a man of vibrant faith.  The program notes, however, seemed to be written from a secular perspective.  I say this mainly because the writer seemed puzzled that what Bach had written as a "memorial to the recently departed" could sound so "celebratory."  What really struck me about this, and the reason I bring it up, is that this person clearly struggled to find a context for Bach's joy in the face of death:
 "The Lutheran ideal of death as a release from the pains and difficulties of life's suffering is more easily understood when we examine the lives of those in times, places, or situations other than our own.  The 18th-century perspective on death must surely have been affected by the frequency with which it was confronted. Bach himself buried more than ten of his children." 
Indeed! Bach fathered twenty children, seven with his first wife and thirteen with his second.  Out of the twenty, only half survived to adulthood. I understand what this writer is getting at. It is true that we, overall, are living longer and easier lives. But regardless of our "time, place, and situation", the fact remains that the death rate has not changed since Bach's day, and, truth be told, life is still full of suffering for the majority of those living it. Even so, by and large, suffering or not, we fight tooth and nail put off death for as long as we can.  Death was the great enemy of man in Bach's time and it remains so today.  In fact, as a Lutheran, and a man devoted to Scripture, Bach would not have viewed death merely as a release from the hardship of life.  He believed that death was serious business, not because it was the end of life, but because after it came God's judgment, "the day of wrath when God's righteous judgment will be revealed.  He will render to each one according to his works..."(Rom. 2:5b,6).

No, to find the key to Bach's triumphant tone in the face of suffering and death, and to find the key for our own, one need only listen to the words of his music.

Jesus, my joy, my heart's delight, Jesus my treasure!
Ah, how long? Ah, long has my heart troubled and longed for you!
God's lamb, my bridegroom, besides You on earth nothing shall be dearer to me.

Now there is nothing damnable in those who are in Christ Jesus,
who do not walk after the way of the flesh, but after the way of the spirit.

Under your protection I am safe from the storms of all enemies.
Let Satan rage, let the enemy fume, Jesus stands with me.
Whether now it thunders and flashes, whether sin and Hell terrify, Jesus will protect me.

For the law of the spirit, which gives life in Christ Jesus,
Has made me free from the law of sin and death.

Defiance to the old dragon, defiance to the vengeance of death, defiance to fear as well!
Rage, world, and attack; I stand here and sing in entirely secure peace!
God's strength holds me in watch; earth and abyss must fall silent, however much they might rumble.

You, however, are not of the flesh, but rather of the Spirit,
since the Spirit of God lives in otherwise in you.
Anyone, however, who does not have Christ's Spirit, is not His.

Away with all treasures, you are my delight, Jesus, my joy!
Away, you vain honors; I don't want to listen to you; remain unknown to me!
Misery, want, torture, shame and death shall, although I must suffer much, never part me from Jesus.

However if Christ is in you, then the body is dead indeed for the sake of sin;
but the spirit is life for the sake of righteousness.

Good night, existence that cherishes the world! You do not please me.
Good night, sins, stay far away, never again come to light!
Good night, pride and glory! To you utterly; life of corruption, be good night given!

If the spirit of him who has raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you,
So will the same one who has raised Christ from the dead,
bring life to your mortal bodies, because of His spirit that dwells in you.

Give way, you spirits of grief, for the Lord of joy, Jesus enters in.
For those who love God, even their sorrow must be of pure sweetness.
Even if I must endure mockery and scorn, yet you remain, even in suffering, Jesus my joy!*

In Christ, all of life has meaning.  In Christ even suffering can be rich.  In Christ there is triumph over sin and victory in death.  The answer to it all is Jesus, My Joy!  When Jesus is your joy in life, He will be your joy in death as well.

*There are other English translations available on the internet.  I've merely copied the text provided in the concert program.