A Prayer in the Valley of Shadow

In The Silver Chair (one of C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia), the great lion Aslan gives Jill some signs by which she and Eustace are to find the lost prince. But then Aslan warns her, “Here on the mountain I have spoken to you clearly; I will not often do so down in Narnia. Here on the mountain, the air is clear and your mind is clear; as you drop down into Narnia, the air will thicken. Take great care that it does not confuse your mind.”

We also speak of “mountaintop experiences” in which God’s voice seems so clear and our perspective is sharpened. Prayer on the mountaintop feels easy because God feels so close. But we don’t live on the mountaintop.

We live in the valley, where the air is “thick,” where our senses are dulled by the noise and our sight is dimmed by the shadows. We live in the “valley of the shadow of death,” as the psalmist put it, and prayer in the valley doesn’t feel so easy or exciting.

My favorite collection of prayers is a little volume of Puritan prayers called The Valley of Vision. The first prayer (from which the volume gets its title) is a prayer out of the depths of the valley, but in this case, the valley–because of its darkness–becomes a place of clear vision if one looks up to see the brightness of God’s stars above. Whatever valley you may find yourself in, may this prayer lift your eyes to the One who is far above you holding all things together, and yet is even now with you in the valley.

Lord, high and holy, meek and lowly,

Thou hast brought me to the valley of vision,
where I live in the depths but see thee in the heights;
hemmed in by mountains of sin I behold thy glory.

Let me learn by paradox
that the way down is the way up,
that to be low is to be high,
that the broken heart is the healed heart,
that the contrite spirit is the rejoicing spirit,
that the repenting soul is the victorious soul,
that to have nothing is to possess all,
that to bear the cross is to wear the crown,
that to give is to receive,
that the valley is the place of vision.

Lord, in the daytime stars can be seen from deepest wells,
and the deeper the wells the brighter thy stars shine;
Let me find thy light in my darkness,
thy life in my death,
thy joy in my sorrow,
thy grace in my sin,
thy riches in my poverty
thy glory in my valley.

Watch Out!!

If your 2-year-old daughter was unknowingly walking toward danger, you would use the strongest words and tone necessary to get her to stop; in fact, you wouldn’t hesitate to physically restrain her and pull her away from the danger, if needed. Likewise if your friend or parent started experiencing symptoms of a stroke, you would not be apologetic in demanding that they immediately go to the hospital.

If that is how we automatically respond when a loved one is in danger, why do we recoil when a pastor, or a friend, warns us of the very real danger of hell? If a loved one’s soul is in danger of being in torment forever apart from the mercy of God, why do we squirm and fidget and feel like we’re being tremendously unloving to say such a thing to them?

One possible reason is that we have relegated hell (along with God’s wrath against sin) to the category of “archaic” or “puritanical,” and therefore consider anyone who still believes in such a ludicrous notion to be rather backward or small-minded. Unfortunately, though, hell doesn’t just disappear when people stop believing in it.

Another reason might be that any discussion of hell elicits images of street-corner preachers shouting hellfire and brimstone condemnations. Perhaps even Jonathan Edwards’ famous sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, comes to mind–and we’re not sure if that’s an accurate portrayal of the loving God we think we know.

Or maybe we’ve simply bought in to the relativistic worldview of the culture around us, that proudly proclaims each individual’s right to decide their own beliefs and determine their own destiny. And therefore for anyone to claim that they know something absolutely smacks of arrogance and presumption.

The more that I read of Jonathan Edwards’ sermons and writing (and I’ve probably read over 700 pages in the past few weeks!), the more impressed I am at the depth of his pastoral heart. And the more convicted I am of how small and self-serving my own love for others usually is. Edwards speaks of hell often, and solemnly warns his listeners and readers to consider the condition of their soul and turn to God so that they might be saved from the wrath that they are most certainly headed toward. He warns those who think they are saved, spelling out in great detail the ways to distinguish true assurance of salvation from self-deception or emotionalism. And he does all of this without apology or hesitation–simply because he loves his people.

So friend, take heed! Where does your soul stand before God? Hell is real–the mercy of God through Jesus is your only hope, so cry out to Him and put your trust in Him while you still have opportunity. Do not delay! And Christian, on what are you basing your confidence? Is there evidence of your union with Christ, in an increasing awareness of your sin and a growing dependence on God’s mercy to put that sin to death? Don’t presume that you are entitled to salvation, and don’t treat it flippantly (like, “Of course, I’m saved!”), but “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith” (2 Cor. 13:5).

Crunch Time

It’s crunch time, and I’m feeling the stress of it. Multiple papers for my classes at Talbot have been due in the past week. My final exam is tomorrow and I haven’t started studying for it yet. There are several big events happening in my pastoral ministry, which I am responsible to oversee. Even a couple of new responsibilities that I had no way of anticipating are converging on these same couple weeks. Despite my best efforts to plan ahead and avoid a crunch like this, here it is. Maybe you can relate?

So a couple verses of Psalm 22 resonated deeply with me as I read it today. In verse 11, the lament and plea of David is this:

Be not far from me, for trouble is near, and there is none to help.

David’s troubles were far greater than my own, but I can certainly relate to the cry of his soul that God would come close. Help is far away. Trouble is near at hand. “So God, don’t also be far from me!”

He repeats a similar plea in verse 19:

But you, O Lord, do not be far off! O you my help, come quickly to my aid!

In place of the despairing groan of “there is none to help,” here David pleads with faith and hope. God alone is his help, therefore he is not left to flounder on his own. “So God, come quickly and be the help I need!”

David’s song ends with a note of hopeful praise: what will be “told of the Lord to the coming generation” is that “God has done it!” (vs. 30-31) When trouble is near and other help is far (or nonexistent), God is our “very present Help in trouble” (Psalm 46:1).

Come quickly to our aid, God, in whatever crunch time we are facing!

Sins vs. Sin

A small view of sin results in a small view of the Gospel.

If our understanding of depravity is that we do bad things (or fail to do the right things), we focus only on sins in the plural. In that understanding, sin is tied to behaviors or actions that we do or don’t do. And certainly those sins are abhorrent to God (Proverbs 6:16-19, Galatians 5:19-21, etc.). But sin is bigger than acts of sinning.

Scripture speaks of sin as the nature that we as human beings are born with (Romans 7:18). It is what comes naturally out of our hearts apart from Christ. It is what makes us enemies of God who are destined to receive His wrath (Romans 5:10, Ephesians 2:3). It is the constant inclination of our hearts away from God (Genesis 6:5).

That sin is so pervasive that even our seemingly righteous acts can come out of a heart that is set on autonomy from God (Isaiah 64:6). Martin Luther coined a phrase that aptly depicts this pervasive sin in our hearts: incurvatus in se.  This Latin phrase means “curved in on oneself.” The essence of our sin is that we try to save ourselves–we try to make life work apart from God.

When we begin to grasp the depth of that sin, and when we begin to realize that even our virtue is clouded with self-salvation efforts, we can cry out with Paul in Romans 7:24, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” But it is that cry of wretchedness that then opens the door to exclaim in great joy with Paul, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Rom. 7:25)

Seeing sin in all its ugly depth allows us to see the Gospel in all its wonder and beauty.

50 Years!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI flew up to Portland, Oregon yesterday in order to celebrate my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary, together with my siblings and their families. In a time in which commitments of any kind are hard to come by, let alone the commitment of marriage “till death do us part,” it is a tremendous gift to have parents who are still married after 50 years! And while my siblings and I certainly wish that there was a greater depth of friendship and intimacy in our parents’ marriage, we still rejoice in God’s faithfulness to carry them through all these years, and we honor their faithfulness to one another “for better or for worse.”

Marriage is meant to be a picture of the relationship between Christ and the Church. Because we are sinful human beings, the picture that our marriages portray is often clouded and less than perfect. And yet even in that it is still an accurate picture, because Christ has loved us even when “we were dead in our trespasses and sins” and He has given His very life for us “while we were yet sinners” and enemies of Him. So I rejoice in these 50 years that my parents have remained faithful to their wedding vows, and I rejoice even more in the faithfulness of my God to love me in spite of all my sin and brokenness!

50 anniv parents

Lost in My Found-ness

I’ve been enjoying the daily devotional posts of The Lent Project, from Biola University’s Center for Christianity, Culture & the Arts. The writer of the devotional for April 5th focused on the Sanhedrin’s condemnation of Jesus (from Luke 22:66-71), and she shared honestly how she sees herself often standing with the Sanhedrin on that same pedestal of judgment:

How often do I find myself where the Sanhedrin was that day, standing in judgment of the one who I have been waiting for.  The one who had come to save me from myself, but whom I could not fully accept. You see, I want to make God in my own image. I want to be the one who dictates what the Savior looks like, sounds like, where he is from, and what he will do to bring justice.  My justice.  I stand there, mumbling along with others like me.  Not ones who are lost in their sin, but even worse, the ones who are lost in their found-ness. And so I condemn him.  Not because he is wrong, but because he is right and because intellectually, I believe him.

The thought that there could be another category of lostness–that a person could be “lost in their found-ness”–is unsettling. Unsettling because it is true. And unsettling because it sounds an awful lot like me.

Like the elder brother in Jesus’ parable of the Lost Sons (in Luke 15), I too am responsible and dutiful, obedient and “good.” Like that elder brother, I have not run off to ruin my life and bring shame on my family. And like that elder brother, I protest with righteous indignation at the unfairness of the father to lavish his love on one who was so obviously and deliberately lost rather than on me whose hard work should have earned it by now.

In my self-righteous insistence that I am found and not lost, I am blind to my actual condition. And in that unacknowledged lostness, I condemn the very One who is extending mercy and love to me, preferring instead to bank on my responsible obedience as a sufficient means of gaining the Father’s love.

Oh how patient and merciful the Father has been to me! And oh, what grace that He would open the eyes of the found to see the reality of our lostness and the insufficiency of our self-salvation projects. My heart resonates deeply with the prayer that closes the Lent devotional:

I am lost in my own found-ness, but long to be as one who is so desperate for true salvation that I take him just as he is because he sees me just as I am.  Father, forgive me, for I know exactly what I am doing by denying who you are because you challenge who I am.  You confront me in my comfortable religious life. Somehow let me be with the notorious ones who are drawn to you and know they need you now more than anything or anyone they have ever needed before or will need again.  I want to believe with my entire being that you are who you say you are. Let that be confirmation of my salvation and not of my own condemnation.

Amen! [Read the whole devotional here]

GPS Training

Is your GPS training you not to think?

Because I live in the huge metropolis of Los Angeles County, where traffic can make a relatively short commute into a nightmare, I sometimes use GPS even on familiar routes (in order to avoid some of the traffic). However a few times I have turned off the GPS after checking the route, but then have almost missed a turn because I was waiting for the machine to tell me where to go. Having a device that directs you through a route can eventually lull you into a mindless kind of driving that depends on the device rather than paying attention to the surroundings.

This is not a complaint about GPS–certainly it is very helpful and I will continue to use it–rather, this is simply an observation that came to me as I was driving recently: depending on something like GPS can train my mind to disengage and not think. And I see a similar principle at work in my daughter. Because all her formative years were spent in an orphanage in China where the workers did a lot of things for her (granted, for good reasons–her Down Syndrome means everything she does is very slow), her mind was gradually trained to not think but just wait for someone to do it for her.

I wonder if that same dynamic comes into play in our spiritual lives as well. Do we listen to a sermon the same way we listen to our GPS? In other words, does our mind shift into autopilot just waiting to be told what to believe or think or do? Or, do we engage deeply with the Word being preached, examining the truth of it (Acts 17:11), letting it dwell deeply in us (Colossians 3:16), and then doing it (James 1:22)? Is our singing truly an expression of worship and submission and joy to our God, or are we mindlessly mouthing words (Mark 7:6-7)? Do we love one another deeply from the heart (I Peter 1:22), or is our interaction with one another distracted and shallow?

Don’t let the routines of your Christian life lull you into passivity or mindlessness, rather “Prepare your mind for action…” (I Peter 1:13) so that you can follow Paul’s admonition to the Ephesians:

“Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil.”   – Ephesians 5:15-16