Trudging Along in Triumph

Advent is about waiting…and waiting is often hard.

One day our Savior will return in triumph and our waiting will be over. But for now, in the midst of the waiting, we keep trudging along in faith and hope.

Sometimes that faith is strong and Christ’s imminent triumph brings a spring to our step. But other times, hope fades in the dark valley and we trudge as though in a foot of snow.

If you, like me, are in a season of trudging, may your heart be encouraged and your step lightened with the words of this Advent devotional (by Jessica Snell, in Biola University’s The Advent Project):

Behold, Israel’s king rode to His death meek, and on a donkey. Surely there is no road harder to walk willingly than the one you know will lead to your death.

But He walked that way: to death.

And then through it.

And that is the reason we willingly walk after Him. Because our King has led the way—more than that, He has made the way. There was no way through death until He burst death open from the inside. Death swallowed Him, but it was like swallowing the sun: He was a burning light that could not stay obscured. Not even by the darkest thing we know.

And so we walk after Him. And though the road is uphill all the way—yes to the very end—our trudging is still a triumph. Though we cannot see the host of heaven that marches alongside us, though we cannot hear the trumpets during these dark and dreary days, we are still a part of the great and cheering and singing crowd that the prophet Zechariah saw: laughter on our tongues and a song in our hearts [Zechariah 9:9-17].

Because our King has gone before us, and He has made a way for us through death.

And He will meet us with a feast at the end.

Come quickly Lord Jesus, and bring our trudging feet home through Your triumph!

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To Love Is to Lament

Have you ever been shocked by what is written in the Psalms?

Arise, O God, defend your cause;
    remember how the foolish scoff at you all the day!  (Psalm 74:22)

O God, you have rejected us, broken our defenses;
    you have been angry; oh, restore us.  (Psalm 60:1)

Have you ever wondered how the psalmists dared to speak like that to God? In fact, why in the world are prayers like that included in God’s holy word as examples of how we should pray?! They seem rather presumptuous, or at least a bit disrespectful.

I certainly have wondered those things before, and just as certainly have struggled to pray in that way. So Paul Miller’s explanation of Hebrew laments in his new edition of A Praying Life is very helpful for me:

Laments might seem disrespectful, but in fact they are filled with faith–a raw, pure form of faith that simply takes God at his word.

There is no such thing as a lament-free life. In fact, if your life is lament-free, you aren’t loving well. To love is to lament, to let your heart be broken by something.

If you don’t lament over the broken things in your world, then your heart shuts down. Your living, vital relationship with God dies a slow death because you open the door to unseen doubt and become quietly cynical. Cynicism moves you away from God; laments push you into his presence. So, oddly enough, not lamenting leads to unbelief. Reality wins, and hope dies. Put another way, the reality of a broken world triumphs over the new reality of a redeemed world. You miss resurrection and get stuck in death. 

God rebukes his people and his priests because “they did not say, ‘Where is the Lord?'” (Jeremiah 2:5-8) A sure sign of their wandering hearts is that no one is in God’s face. No one takes hold of God and pulls. This idea is so strange to our ears that I must repeat it: God is upset with Israel because they are not lamenting. We think laments are disrespectful. God says the opposite. Lamenting shows you are engaged with God in a vibrant, living faith.         [pages 173-175]

I need to lament. Life in this broken, sinful world is not as it is meant to be…and not as it one day will be. I need to lament over the childlike creativity and initiative that died in my daughter during her years in an orphanage. I need to lament over the inabilities to love that I find in myself and see in others. I need to lament the senseless devastation taking place in our own country and around the world.

“Where are you God? When will you answer these cries of my heart? Let me not give way to hopeless cynicism. Come and help me!”

 

[sigh]

I feel like I’ve been sighing a lot lately.

I sigh in frustration when my daughter forgets how to say the word “Daddy” (which she has been saying for 5 years) and I wonder if the hours and hours of teaching her to speak are doing any good.

I sigh in weariness as I force my eyelids to open this morning after another late night of work that never ends.

I sigh because the kitchen drain is clogged, and I sigh because even after spending an hour snaking it out (an hour I didn’t really have available to spend on that) it is still clogged and I have to call a plumber.

I sigh with the pain of seeing those I love struggle with sin, and I sigh with the realization of my own sin and brokenness, and I long for the day when sin and suffering will finally be no more.

In all the sighing, I am grateful for Psalm 38:9, which says:

O Lord, all my longing is before you;
    my sighing is not hidden from you.

I sigh when change seems hopeless and far away, but my sighing (and yours) is not hidden from God, and He is able to bring the change that my heart longs for but is powerless to produce. So I direct my sighing to Him in lament and prayer, and I wait in hope for Him to respond. And I hold on to the certainty that one day (as God promises in Isaiah 51:11)…

…the ransomed of the Lord shall return
    and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
    they shall obtain gladness and joy,
    and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

Until that day, I sigh…and I long…and I wait. Come quickly Lord Jesus!

 

Now or Later?

My temperament is such that I am usually quite content to be in the background doing all the little (or big) unnoticed tasks that keep things running smoothly, whether with my family or at my workplace or in my home. But sometimes it’s really nice when someone actually notices and appreciates that I’m doing all those things. In fact, when people take it for granted that of course those things will get done, without acknowledging the corresponding fact that my time and my energy (and maybe my leisure or my sleep too) are being expended to make it happen, I tend to get a bit irritated.

For me as a follower of Jesus, though, the reality is that loving people well inevitably entails sacrificing time and energy (and sometimes leisure and sleep) in ways that never get noticed or appreciated. Even more so, as the father of a child with special needs, there are daily sacrifices God calls me to make, which may never be seen or acknowledged, even by my family. And so I find great comfort in Jesus’ words in Matthew chapter six.

Jesus warns us as His followers not to do our acts of righteousness for the sake of being seen by people. Then He gives three examples of when that might happen: when you give to the needy (vv. 2-4), when you pray (vv. 5-6), and when you fast (vv. 16-18). Instead, He says we are to do those righteous acts in unseen ways, and then here’s the clincher: what makes it possible for us to do these things in secret is the fact that our “Father who sees in secret will reward” us (vs. 4, 6, 18).

Often we use this truth as a scare tactic for children: “You better watch out, because God sees everything you’re doing, even when no one else sees it!” But that is totally missing the point. What Jesus is saying here is not meant to scare people into obedience, but to comfort people who are already obeying with a promise of delayed gratification.

Notice the word “will” in that phrase: “your Father who sees in secret will reward you”. “Will” implies two different things, both of which I believe are true here. It implies a certainty–it’s not that God might reward you, or that you hope for a reward; no, the reward is certain–it will happen. But “will” also implies future–it puts the verb in the future tense. This reward is not immediate. It will certainly come, but it is not yet. We have to wait for it.

And so, as I walk in to my daughter’s room, to do again what I have to do for her every day because she does not have the mental capacity to do it herself, I know I have a choice. I can grumble in my heart (as I often do, to my shame) at how much I am sacrificing and how little it is noticed or appreciated. Or I can rehearse this wonderful truth that my heavenly Father does see what I do, and that one day all of those little (and big) unnoticed, unacknowledged, unappreciated sacrifices will certainly be rewarded.

This promise is for you too, friend. If you also are a follower of Jesus, your heavenly Father sees all that you do to love others well, even if no one else sees or acknowledges it.  And He will certainly reward you–not immediately, but it will come. You can count on that!

 

A Lament for the Weary

My wife and I have had the joy of attending a national conference on Biblical counseling, put on by CCEF, for the past couple years, and this year’s conference in Frisco, Texas was our favorite so far. One of the biggest highlights for me at each conference has been the time we spend singing in worship, and this year was no exception.

I learned a new hymn there, which ministered deeply to my soul. The hymn is a lament song, written by Anne Steele in the mid-1700’s, as a hauntingly beautiful expression of her deep trust in God in the midst of weariness and doubt and struggle. I love how she addresses God as the “dear refuge” of her weary soul. In my own weariness and pain, this honest lament points my longing soul to the ever-open mercy seat of God as my sure and constant hope. Here are the first and the fourth stanzas:

Dear refuge of my weary soul,
On Thee, when sorrows rise
On Thee, when waves of trouble roll,
My fainting hope relies
To Thee I tell each rising grief,
For Thou alone canst heal
Thy Word can bring a sweet relief,
For every pain I feel

Thy mercy seat is open still,
Here let my soul retreat
With humble hope attend Thy will,
And wait beneath Thy feet,
Thy mercy seat is open still,
Here let my soul retreat
With humble hope attend Thy will,
And wait beneath Thy feet

You can listen to the hymn here, or read more about the writer, Anne Steele, from the musicians who are attempting to bring it back into circulation, Indelible Grace.

Strength for today–Hope for tomorrow

I love the hymn Great Is Thy Faithfulness (by Thomas Chisholm). This weekend I was at two different gatherings of ministries who were celebrating major milestones and we sang this hymn at both events. Even though it is an old and familiar hymn, as I sang it again tears came unbidden to my eyes. God used one line in particular to minister deeply to my heart in that moment, primarily because of how that line connects with my own story, but also because it connected with the stories of the ministries we were celebrating.

This great hymn praises God for His faithfulness, while expounding many of the ways we as His people experience that faithfulness. In the third stanza, the fruit of God’s faithfulness that grabbed my heart was the line “Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow.” Strength is not something I must muster up or produce, but it comes because God is indeed faithful. And hope is not merely an elusive emotion that comes and goes with the circumstances–it is a solid and constant reality because God’s faithfulness is solid and constant.

Life with a child with developmental disabilities quickly drains today’s strength and clouds tomorrow’s hope. And the more todays and tomorrows that come and go with seemingly little change can make it very hard to recover strength for yet another day, or to keep hope alive for yet another tomorrow. Add to that the ongoing battle with the sin of my heart, and strength and hope threaten to disappear altogether.

It’s one thing to sing that line in the hymn when you are feeling strong and when hope abounds–then you sing with great enthusiasm. It’s quite another thing to sing that line when your strength is failing and your hope is fading–then you sing with a deep gratitude borne out of desperation because you know that apart from the faithfulness of God, you will not be able to keep going.

And yet, God is truly faithful! In Him there IS strength for yet another day, and there IS hope that all these todays are not the end. Therefore I can sing (and so can you):

“Great is Thy faithfulness!” “Great is Thy faithfulness!”
  Morning by morning new mercies I see;
All I have needed Thy hand hath provided—
    “Great is Thy faithfulness,” Lord, unto me!”

What’s out there? vs. What’s in me?

Should I sing in the choir?

Should I help at the food bank?

Should I teach Sunday school?

Should I join the planning committee for the men’s retreat?

Should I apply for the mission team heading to Thailand?

Amidst long lists of important opportunities to serve, how am I to figure out the unique role God has for me in the Body?

The way we tend to answer that question is by first asking “What’s out there?” In other words, what’s on the list of Opportunities to Serve? In that case it is often the biggest event or the most persistent recruiter or the most urgent need that captures our attention and moves us to sign up.

Certainly there is value in responding to a call to serve or in attempting to fill a need, even if that opportunity to serve is not our lifelong passion. In Nehemiah’s day, when God’s people were rebuilding the wall of Jerusalem, someone had to repair the Dung Gate, and most likely the district ruler named Malchijah who did the job would not have listed that as his favorite thing to do (Nehemiah 3:14). In our day, any parent could tell you that there is a never-ending list of mostly mundane tasks that go into caring for a child. Those things are of immense importance, yet few moms would consider diaper-changing as her primary role in the Body!

I believe there is another way to find our unique contribution to the family of God. Rather than first checking to see “What’s out there?” we need to be asking “What’s in me?” How has God shaped me–in my spiritual gifts, natural abilities, experience and passion–to carry out a unique and needed role in the Body of Christ?

It’s possible that nothing on the list of service opportunities fits the unique combination of heart and skills and experience that God has given me. But that doesn’t mean I’m off the hook and don’t have to serve. Nor does it require that I sigh and select something from the list just so I can say I’m serving. Instead, what that means is that I need to find out what makes me come alive…and then go and do it, even if it’s not on the list.

Each Christian has been given by God a unique ministry that is needed for the proper functioning of the Body. What could the Church become–and accomplish–if every person were carrying out the role that God designed us for?! So if a volunteer is needed to change diapers in the nursery, do it with all your heart. But don’t stop there. Keep asking yourself “What has God given uniquely to me for the building up of His Church?” And then figure out a way to go and do it!