The sun rose in gentle strides over the kingdom that lay in the southern mountains. The light chased away the shadows of night as it drew its curtain up the mountainside. It peeked into the houses and shops of the inhabitants of the kingdom as if to say “Up, up. A new day is beginning.”
The kingdom was situated among the crevices and cliffs on the tallest mountain in the range that was both austere and ominous in appearance. Here was the home of all things tough and hardy, of the mountain lions, wild dogs, and birds of prey. The people that dwelt here were as gruff as the rocks themselves and even the sparse wildflowers that grew in small scattered clusters here and there contained a prickly edge to them that suggested a sturdy character of survival in the most unlikely of places.
As the day was dawning, the streets and marketplace began to hum with the life of people. Shopkeepers opened the doors of their shops. Men and women called out their wares and goods to passersby who either stopped to barter and bring down the price of the item or hurried away, intent on some business, to wherever their destination was. Children chased each other and stray animals down the streets and in and out of booths among the sellers till some poor fellow holding a stack of lanterns or hats would invariably trip over child or stray sending all his goods flying this way and that, to the amusement of all those looking on.
Towering above all the hum drum and every day business of the marketplace was the castle of the king of the Southern Kingdom. Its tall turrets and spirals jutted out into the sky and interrupted the jagged silhouette of the Southern Mountains. The castle was a foreboding monument, built and constructed on the backs of the king’s slaves and the townspeople. Giant stone eagles guarded the perimeter wall of the fortress. In the Great Hall the statues of the kings of long ago looked haughtily down on visitors passing through. At the end of the Great Hall was the throne of the king made of marble, alabaster, and gold inlaid with diamonds and jewels. The back of the throne was the height of 3 men and on top sat a gold eagle in flight, wings spread, talons outstretched, as if ready at any moment to devour its prey.
As the king sat on his throne, scepter in hand, he looked down in disdain as his servants and slaves approached the throne. He wore robes of the finest silks and velvets of the richest colors and a large ring of gold and jewels on every finger. How immensely better than my slaves, am I! He thought. Why, they are not even worthy to approach my throne or even to speak to me. Oh, how I despise them! How many of them he would sentence to death today, he did not know. He only knew that the blood would flow from his ax. The slightest error, the smallest mistake, was rewarded by the King with the penalty of death. And so the servants and slaves approached his throne in fear, each having said good-bye to their families and the sun, uncertain whether they would see either ever again.
And so throughout the course of the morning, after he had sentenced to death 3 slaves (the cook for too much salt in his breakfast, the master of wardrobe for tying his belt too tight, and the chief musician for allowing the trumpeter to play flat) it was time for the reading of the parchments where all matters of the kingdom were brought to the attention of the king.
Now the servants and slaves dreaded this time more than any other. No slave had read the parchment without being sentenced to death for the last 3 years. Whoever read the parchment now was sure to die. And so they had resorted to pulling straws for no man willingly claimed this task. This morning the shortest straw had been pulled by a young man who had only been serving the king for 3 months.
And so the young man approached the throne with trembling hands and weak knees. For a brief moment he thought of his wife that he had kissed good-bye this morning and the children that he had hugged for perhaps the last time. Was it really only this morning? It felt like a lifetime ago. But there was no returning to his family now. The only thing he could do was the task set before him and so with courage that came from where he did not know, he raised his eyes to the king and waited for the signal to begin.
“Read,” the king said.
The king studied the new servant standing before him. He had never seen this servant before and did not know his name. Did it even matter? No, the king could not possibly think why the name of this man would matter or who he would matter to. What appalled the king the most was the dirt and grime on this servant. Why was it so hard to find a clean servant? Ugh, he had terrible posture. And his teeth! Was there no end to the appalling condition of this servant? Haven’t I set an example of proper decorum and hygiene? the king thought. How can it be that this man is standing before me? He is unworthy!
Though the servant knew he was under the king’s scrutiny, he kept his eyes focused on the parchments. He had to read the letters perfectly. His very life depended on it. And so he read as best as he could until to his great dismay he came across a word he didn’t know and couldn’t pronounce. He tried to stumble across the word but the king stopped him.
“Slave, did you falter in your reading?” the king asked.
“Your majesty, I—”
“Slave, I do not know your name nor do I care to. Many unworthy people have entered this Great Hall and have appeared before me not even aware of their unworthy condition. Do you see this Hall that I have made with my own hands? Do you see the utter perfection of this throne upon which I sit? There is nothing amiss here, nothing out of place. I root out all things that offend my perfection. And so it must be that you shall be put to death.”
The king motioned his hand and the guards came forward and seized the servant. He cried and pleaded to the king for mercy as they took him away but the king would not hearken. They carried him through the Great Hall and passed through the Doors of the Forgotten where those who enter are never seen again. And so by a flick of the king’s hand the servant would never see the sun again and the sun would set at dusk upon a family who waited for the return of a husband and father whom they would never see.
As the Doors of the Forgotten closed a servant came running through the Great Hall to the throne of the king, breathing heavily, chest heaving. Before the king could sentence him to death as well, he spoke.
“Your majesty,” he panted, “Invaders.”
“Impossible,” the king replied. Who would have the audacity to invade his kingdom? The king rose and looked out on the Great Balcony. There on the fields at the foot of his mountain were swarms of soldiers who carried the emblems and seals of the Gracious One. His eyes scanned the hosts and his heart faltered for he could hardly see a patch of grass from the field, so great was the number of soldiers.
“How many,” he cried, “How many?”
“Your majesty, there are legions. More than any one man can count,” the servant said.
For a moment he hesitated. Could he defeat the army of the Gracious One? He considered surrendering but his indignant anger fueled his actions. He motioned his hand and gave the signal for battle. The servants scrambled to prepare. The king called for the archers and for the soldiers who fight on foot and for those who fight on horseback. He commanded the catapults to be brought out and swords, bows and arrows to be given to every able body in the kingdom. He would prove the audacity of the Gracious One to invade the kingdom that he had created with his own hands.
The king put on his armor and mounted his horse and stood at the head of his army at the gate. He did not have many soldiers, not as many as the Gracious One, but that didn’t matter. He ordered the gate to be opened and called his army to charge forward. And so they went down the mountainside till at last they stood on the field before the enemy. The two armies charged at each other till they met in the middle of the field with a resounding clash. The battle had begun.
How many soldiers fell that day no man could count. As the heat of the sun increased so did the intensity of battle. Horses charged, men lunged, swords clashed till finally the army of the Southern Kingdom grew weary. They could not stand against the strength of this army. It seemed as though the soldiers of the Gracious One never faltered or tired. One by one they put down their swords in defeat and surrender.
“Cowards,” the king cried, “Cowards! Come and fight with me those of you who have remained loyal and I will reward you.” The king drew up a sword that a soldier had laid down. He charged forward with a battle cry but looked back in shock. He was alone. His men stood behind him, unmoving, silent. They took three steps backward and surrendered their king to the reward that awaited him.
The king looked across the field that was now soaked in blood. The dead were piled and strung across the field covering it like a blanket of armor and flesh. A silence had fallen upon the armies which every man knew to be the silence of souls departing. The carnage had been great and so the soldiers knew to have respect unto those who had paid the price.
The armies separated a path amongst themselves as the Gracious One stepped forward to stand before the king of the Southern Mountains. Although few men have seen the Gracious One, every soldier that looked upon his face that day knew that never was there a king fairer than he, nor would there ever be. He drew his sword and spoke before the king had a chance to cry out in scorn.
“There is nothing amiss here, nothing out of place. I root out all things that offend my perfection.”
And with those words the Gracious One slew the king of the Southern Kingdom with his sword. His body dropped to the ground and laid there in a pool of his own blood.
So the army of the Gracious One returned to the north from where they had come. They had accomplished their purpose and there was no need for them to stay. It wasn’t in them to conquer and divide, to make great cities or nations. They only bring grace when needed and relieve those who are oppressed like the reprieve of the moonlight sky from the glare of the desert sun.
The people of the Southern Kingdom took the bodies of those who were slain and buried them in the field. And when springtime returned white lilies sprung up all over the field where never lilies had grown before. So to this day they call the field the Field of the Redeemed because beauty grew again in the place of hatred and cruelty.
They did not touch the body of the king but left him to rot where he had fallen. This was his royal burial as he was left to be devoured by the jackals, wild dogs and birds of prey that would pick his bones clean till nothing remained. The people didn’t mind that their king was disposed of in such a way as this. Because the people thought it only fitting that he should return to his own kind.
Sometimes, as depraved sinners, we have tendencies to build great kingdoms in our imaginations. In these kingdoms we are kings and nobody knows better than we do. No person is cleverer than us, no person more just or more right. All people that we come into contact with become the subjects of our kingdom, the vassals of our tyranny.
The kingdoms of our imagination become the fruition of our hands in our day to day dealing with the people of the church and others that we come into contact with. With frightening strength we hold onto distorted views, petty arguments, and vain self opinions in the belief that nobody knows better than we do. And so we walk among each other as lords, peering down at one another, despising this man and that man for what we believe are weaknesses and for differences that aren’t salvation issues and, quite frankly, not worth the fight.
And there are so many things for which our kingdoms battle against one another. We fight about church practices, school issues, sports, church politics, world politics, people’s behavior. The point of this article isn’t to argue either side, to validate one group over the over. Let each man have his opinion and speak peaceably about it. The question here is which kingdom are you fighting for?
Outside of the kingdom where your old man of sin rules, there is another kingdom that is often referred to as Zion. It’s a beautiful kingdom and the one that rules it is fairer and more worthy than you. This kingdom has been built on the eternal foundation of his arms and the people that dwell in this kingdom dwell in the Covenant of Grace.
Although there are many joyful aspects of this kingdom, I want to focus on one in particular: grace. It’s the tool that God uses to save his people, to restore them from eternal damnation to everlasting life. It’s the means by which you are saved. And as such it’s breathtaking.
But the beauty of grace doesn’t just lie in the fact of what it accomplishes. The beauty of grace is also found in its boundlessness. That’s how it’s been measured to us, in boundlessness. Grace does not come to us in the measurements of teaspoons and tablespoons, in rationed amounts and child-sized portions. It comes to us in floods and torrents, in the quantities of seas and oceans. Grace is not the drizzle of a light April shower but it’s the drenching thunderstorms of a late summer day, so heavy the rains fall, so thick the torrents of water that drench your skin, soaking you to the bone, till it’s dripping from your clothes and fingertips. The quality of grace is eternal. It never ends for us. It never fails. West and east are forever away from each other and there in between lies all the grace that has been given to you.
Yet with all the grace that we receive from God, too often the grace that we deal out to one another is given in paltry doses. Like pennies and nickels that a miser gives to the poor and orphaned children, we hoard all the grace that God has bestowed upon us within ourselves. We refuse to surrender our unfounded expectations. We refuse to let go of arguments that grieve the Spirit because of the disunity that it causes among the members of the body of Christ. Life among the church becomes a tug of war as each kingdom of man refuses to budge or give an inch. And so we never stop to ponder what pleases the kingdom of Christ most. Or to ask ourselves as members of the covenant of grace, how can we best serve the Gracious One?
The kingdom of your vanity is rancid and a foul stench as are all kingdoms of men. The activities of these kingdoms are despised by God and displeasing to him. So it is that you have to dismantle your kingdom. You have to tear it apart because you can not have citizenship in both. You can’t be a king in your kingdom and a member of the kingdom of the Covenant. So dismantle your kingdom. Raze it to the ground. Burn it if you need to. Do whatever it takes because your kingdom is doomed and the Gracious One will destroy it at the rising of his Son.
As a member of the Covenant of Grace you can be assured that the grace of our Father will never disappoint you. In time you will find it to be a cure-all, a band-aid, the super glue of the life of the church. Grace is the blood that flows in the body of believers as it forgives, chastens, restores, serves, loves and heals. It’s the fertile soil that allows friendships to grow, marriages to flourish and covenantal life to abound.
The king of the Southern Kingdom was a vain man who believed that he was better than all men. He caused the death of so many people, just as we in our pride and cruelty kill so many people in word and thought. Let go of your vanities. Think yourself better than no man lest the Gracious One come and find something amiss and in his wrath root out those things which offend his perfection. Abdicate your throne before the Gracious One slays you and gives your body to the wild dogs and birds of prey and all those that feed upon the flesh.
When I close my eyes to recall my childhood memories I find myself standing in the middle of a forest on a warm summer day. The trees are rustling all around as the wind plays among the branches. The sun is rising steadily, chasing away the damp and dew of night. The forest is alive with leaves so green it makes my heart ache. I am standing on a lone dirt path that weaves its way among the forest branches. Ah, I say to myself. Here is a happy memory.
Farther down the path I see my father standing, gazing into the dense canopy with binoculars in his hand and a bird book in his pocket. Inevitably, some bird has caught his eye. My father has hawk eyes that catch everything. Perhaps it was the flicker of the bird’s wing in the sunlight or its erratic movement from branch to branch. He sees animals and birds from great distances whether he is standing still or driving by in a car. He has fine eyes for bird watching.
My eyes are not as sharp as my father’s. I have weak eyes, the eyes of a child. I can not see as I ought to and it takes a while for me to focus my eyes on the bird. They blend so well with the green foliage and are such tiny creatures. Sometimes I get frustrated when we go bird watching. It takes me a long time to find them even with binoculars.
But no matter. For now I run forward to see what my father is looking at. I run forward because I am confident that my father will point out to me what he sees. And just as confident that he will have patience until I finally see it.
When I was 13 years old my father and I would go bird watching many Saturdays during the summer. I wasn’t perhaps a willing participant at first. My father would wake me before dawn when the whole house, the neighborhood and the world were still sleeping. We would drive to the bakery in South Holland, grab something to eat and continue down the road to whatever our destination was that day.
Sometimes we stayed local and went to nature parks close to home. Sometimes we traveled over the Indiana border and into Michigan. Our destination then was Buchanan where they had a beautiful forest trail along a river. Sometimes we would even head towards Chicago and would go bird watching in the Chinese gardens behind the Museum of Science and Industry. There we would run into ornithologists from the local universities who would always refer to me as a “young fledgling.”
We saw a large variety of migratory birds during that season. In the meadows and tall grasses we saw many kinds of warblers, finches, hawks, hummingbirds, swallows, and red winged black birds. Along the banks of rivers we saw kingfishers, blue herons, ducks and geese. In the forest we saw more warblers, Baltimore orioles, brown creepers, Cedar waxwings, red headed woodpeckers, scarlet tanagers, and black capped chickadees. We even had an occasional spotting of my favorite bird, the Indigo bunting.
Although my heart wasn’t willing at first, it soon grew to be. I came to love those early Saturday mornings as we walked among the treasure troves of nature. These forests came to be sanctuaries for me, restful places where my father and I could gaze upon the handiwork of God. Our only requirement was our silence. Everything else was given to us abundantly. Fistfuls of beauty and delight were ours for the taking. And although the noon day sun would beat upon our backs, to us it didn’t matter. We walked on. The day, the forest, the truth was ours for the taking. Here we were kings, subduing and conquering in love. And so we walked on. After all, it has been given to us, my father and me, to have and to own those summer days.
Soon the leaves began to change their colors to that of a burning fire. Some began to fall. Then all. And then the cold wings of the north winds swept down and covered us in blankets of snow. The birds flew south to lands where the sun didn’t have to reach as far. But we knew they would be back next season.
We never went bird watching again after that summer. There was no specific reason why we stopped going. Life was moving on and we went with it. The next summer I had a job and worked Saturdays and then high school came and went and soon I moved away. Sometimes the migratory patterns of the human life are as unavoidable as those of the songbirds.
But I didn’t fly away empty-handed. My father gave me a lesson to keep with me for always. He brought me to the forest and pointed out to me what I needed to see. Here, he said. This is the handiwork of God. This is the creation that groans and travails. Look. Listen. See. And although it may have taken me a couple of years, I now realize what he was pointing me to. I only wished I would have seen it all along. My father handed a truth to me, as all believing parents do to their children. He placed it within my hand and said, now hold fast. And, by the grace of God, I took the lesson and placed it in the pocket of my heart. I take it with me wherever I go.
When I close my eyes to picture the covenant that God has with his people in Christ, I often picture the forests that my father brought me to. It is perhaps a weak comparison and for that, forgive me. And yet there are so many similarities that it would be foolish of me to ignore the meaning of it.
See, as I child I was weak, blind and unaware. I was lying on the highways and byways of my spiritual life naked, cold and destitute. In and of myself I didn’t understand what covenant life could be, how beautiful and glorious it was. Then my heavenly Father took my earthly father, molded and prepared him and called him to be the tool that he would use to open my eyes. My earthly father brought me to the forests and said, See this bird? See this creature? Upheld and sustained by the might of his hand? What tender care! What magnificent love! If God cares for this creature, how much more does He care for you?
The covenant of grace that God has with his people and his people only is a beautiful sanctuary of eternal shade. Here is where we find the rest for our souls. Within this covenant, this forest of grace, there are so many beauties for us to look upon. It’s as if you and I were walking upon a trail of eternal wonder, pointing out to all the glorious birds of truth to each other. See that? That bird is mercy. Isn’t it a marvel? See that creature that flies with grace? That is the patience of our heavenly Father. Your eye could not gaze upon anything more beautiful than that.
The wonder of this covenant is that we don’t have to go anywhere to experience it. It abides in us. We close our eyes and there it is. Given to us by the hand of God, to have and to enjoy. The shade cools us from the heat of the sun, the beauty of it all delights us. And it was nothing of our own hand but given to us so freely.
And as I walked the earthly forests with my father so now I walk in the forest of covenant with my heavenly father. It’s so beautiful. So peaceful. I walk on in this forest and truth, subduing and conquering, a king forever. I walk on because it’s been given to me, to have and to own the eternal summer day.
As a child I always loved watching my mom bake a pie. To me it was like watching a fine art in progress. The precision of the ingredients, the exact rolling out of the dough. My favorite part was when she would shape the pie crust with her thumb. Scalloped u-shapes would form around the entire pan like Michelangelo sculpting his David. Then she would place it in the oven and soon the smell would float through the kitchen to the entire house. I could never have any of the pie because it was always for company. But regardless, I enjoyed the process.
Mother is a term that can evoke so many different images. Typically these are images of love and nurture. But for the world today mother can be such a meaningless word. Some children have abusive mothers, mothers in jail, mothers addicted to drugs or even two mothers. Some mothers beat their children and some even commit the unspeakable by murdering their own flesh and blood. Some mothers reverse the role by trying to be their child’s friend rather than the parent. The family unit crumbles as the role of mother becomes meaningless and void. So the anarchy of minds prevails resulting in an overindulged society that doesn’t know discipline or fortitude. It’s the Garden of Eden gone amuck.
On the other side of the antithesis lies the church. Surrounded by this chaos, but by God’s grace not a part of it, the church holds certain precious truths that are worth dying for. The truth of God’s word, the work of his Son, the fellowship of believers and mothers. They are a crucial part of the church and a beautiful manifestation of how God cares for his people. We are not thrown into this world in a cruel wind on a rainy night left to flounder like fish gulping for air on dry ground. Neither do we incubate in eggs, hatch on our own and waddle off precariously into the jungle of life. God created the role of mother to show us that he is a nurturing God who loves the people that he calls his own.
Where you perhaps looking for the benevolent hand of God the other day and despaired because you couldn’t find it? Then perhaps you should have thought of your mother. That God is his infinite wisdom should ordain such a role is evidence that God truly loves his people. He wanted us to be raised by a loving hand and a helping heart, by chastisement that would guide us and by feet that would walk us into the sanctuary of the church. He wanted us to be raised by mothers who would tell us the story of the cross, of saints who walked by faith and not by sight, and of a better place to come than the world we live in now. My mother loved me because God first loved me in eternity through the work of his son. She spent so many of her years sacrificing for me because Christ did it first on the cross. She instructed me in truth because God commanded it of her. She taught me that my greatest calling was to love God and to be a member of the church that taught his truth.
Perhaps you read this with a scowl on your face. You never had such a mother as this. Perhaps you lost your mother when you were quite young or had a mother who in many ways was no mother at all. Though mother was for you not a physical person, the concept of mother (the love, nurture, and warmth) has always been yours in eternity. The Shepherd of the flock speaks specifically to you. For you who have suffered the loss of mother he gathers into his arms, into the eternal embrace of secure salvation. Mother to you is a higher concept reflected in the divine nature of the Trinity.
When I think of the God’s wisdom I often think of the mother that he choose for me. No other mother would do. She is a perfect fit. That’s how it is for all our mothers. No, they are not perfect. They never will be in this lifetime. But they are the perfect fit for us because God chose them in eternity to play that role in our lives, to be a part of the things that work to our salvation. Whether your mother played the role well or not, whether she was the rock that the waves crashed against or the grains of sand that shifted in the sea waters, she was the mother that God choose for you. And for that fact alone you have no need for another.
Yet sadly we often describe a mother’s job as thankless, as if we are content in using such an adjective to describe this high calling. It is as commonplace as any cliché, mother and thankless walking hand in hand, never seeing the one without the other. The world takes their thankfulness and crams it all in one day. That’s very typical of the world. They often have to set the moral alarm clock of their minds to go off at a certain time to remind them to think of another. Oh yes, they say, it’s Mother’s Day. I’ll have to send my mom some flowers. And then they go on living as before in selfishness and moral disarray.
It has to be different for us who are believers. Because of the grace of God it has to be different. Our lives are living thank you cards that we send to each other every moment when we are able. We live to serve and show gratitude to those who sacrifice for us. And if you think of those who have sacrificed the most for you, I daresay your mother would be towards the top of the list. I know mine is. But it isn’t always easy to say thank you. Sometimes the words come out of our mouths and they feel like plastic, lifeless, with no meaning. After all, you say thank you to the cashier who hands you a receipt at the grocery store or to the waitress that brought you a refill. Our mothers have done so much more than that for us. So let me help you find the right words to say to her today and for all the days that follow.
“Mother, I would say thank you to for all that you’ve done for me but the words somehow don’t seem enough. There was so much love, so much nurture and guidance. But most importantly, there was the loving act of you bringing me as a baby dressed in white, standing besides my father as I was baptized and given the seal and sign of God’s undoubted love. You promised that day that by the grace of God you would do your utmost to instruct me in these doctrines. Nothing monumental. No walls fell that day, no nations rose to glory or power. The world didn’t stop to take notice or even care. This event will never be written in their history books. A vow was made that day and to them it might as well have been the ramblings of the incoherent wind.
Yet God used you to bring me to the temple, a certain Hannah of old dedicating her Samuel to the Lord. And you brought me every Sunday after that. And then you brought me to a Christian school and to catechism. (What wondrous love is this, o my soul!) Do you see why “thank you” simply won’t do? Because we both know, Mother, that it was all the work of God. It was his hand. So I’ll speak to you in the language that you know and love. I’ll tell you thank you the way you’ve always wanted to hear it: Mother, I love Zion. I’ve walked about her ramparts. I’ve studied her defenses. And you are right, Mother. She is beautiful. I love her and I love her Maker. So you can let me go and be happy because I am in the everlasting arms. No matter where I am in life, whether beside you or a hundred miles away, I’ll always fly away and meet you on golden streets by a crystal river where our Maker dwells and knows us and calls us by name.”
Please understand that when I tell you this, I am not boasting but rather speaking a plain truth. I am a wealthy person. No, I do not own a Fortune 500 company or have a really diverse portfolio. What makes me so wealthy is that right now, at this very moment, I have three boxes of cereal in my cupboard. This is the definition of my wealth.
I do not mean to underestimate the times or down-play the economic struggles that our country faces. Times, in a certain sense, are tough. Unemployment and gas prices are up. Wall Street and confidence in Capital Hill is down. For so many decades we have had our seven years of plenty. Now, it seems, our number is up.
But for the most part, especially for those of us who live in the United States, we have been given more than we ever thought possible. Three boxes of cereal? That’s a lot of food when compared to someone living in a third world country. Comparatively speaking I have been given my weekly bread. I am part of a wealthy society that has been given more widespread abundance than any other civilization. Cell phones, ipods, computers, large mansions, Costco stores, exotic vacations, sports cars. These things used to be either unheard of or very rare. But now in households across the country they are as commonplace as the dust that settles on the family dinner table.
Which begs the question, do we as Christians have too much material possession? Have we become to the proverbial child sitting in the grocery cart stretching out our arms towards every toy, every piece of candy that we see? Do we want the things that glitter, that sparkle, that catch our eye? And, even worse yet, do we throw a spiritual temper tantrum when we aren’t given the things that we desire?
In Matthew 19:24 Christ says, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of the needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” To be honest, I always thought of millionaires and billionaires vacationing on their yachts and owning enough property to house the entire tribe of Benjamin. But I don’t think that anymore. The definition of who a rich man is has changed over time. Is it even possible that we, the average American middle class society, catch a glimpse of the rich man looking back at us from the mirror?
Times of famine can be times of spiritual strengthening in the heart of the believer. When times are tough your eyes are focused on heaven and on the treasure of eternal life. What on earth could possibly compare? You don’t own many possessions. You’re not certain if you’ll have any food tomorrow. This is when you are stripped down to the basics. In almost every sense of the word you are naked with only grace to cover you.
But when times are good then it’s a different story. Grace doesn’t seem as necessary when you have more than enough food in your cupboard for this week and the next. Sure, you’ll admit, spiritual things are important. But right now you have to focus on making money because that’s where everyone else is at and if you don’t keep up then you’re out of the game. So like an anteater you snuff out the minuet, the miniscule and the meaningless and you gorge. But soon you can’t stop eating and so you become an obese diabetic, craving the sweets of material things and injecting yourself with insulin shots of wealth and possession.
This is how it works. If a heartbeat is the measure of all things worthy then what is the rhythm of yours? Does it beat like this: money, must have, big house, must have, cars, must have, boats, must have. Poor heartbeat if that. It’s really the rhythm of a funeral dirge as the grave diggers shovel the dirt out of your shallow grave. You’ve actually coded and have gone B-Fib. They’re bringing out the paddles to jump start your heart, but there’s little hope. It’s time for the family to say goodbye.
Or think of it this way. If the blood in your veins flows towards that which gives you purpose then what is the direction of yours? Does it flow towards the finite, towards that which is created to perish? Does it flow towards material possession, wealth and posterity? If so then tread carefully here. These are the symptoms of a hemophiliac. One small cut and you’ll bleed out every ounce of blood in your body because one possession is never enough. Your blood will never coagulate. And so you’re back on the operating table but it’s the same old story. You’ve already flat-lined. The hearse has arrived and your casket is prepared. It’s time to start the funeral dirge once more.
I don’t want to be on the operating table. By the grace of God, I don’t want to be spiritually dying. I think you would say the same. Sometimes it takes a little self-reflection to realize that you’re heading towards the ER. And so I think about me. I can only wonder if these years have been marked by too much having and not enough sacrificing, if these years have been marked by clutter and hoarding. All my possessions, all my desires, all the things that I think I need have become stock piled. Items piled on top of items till the Mt. Kilimanjaro of my possessions has become so great that I can not see through it. Frankly speaking, I can not see God.
In Mark 8: 34 Christ says “Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.” How can I carry another thing? But I know it’s time for this juggling act to come to an end. By his grace I can let everything go. By his grace I can take up my cross. With my arms, yet arms that are not mine, I let everything go. I clear out my mountain. I move mountains—mountains of items I’ll never need. In one fell swoop, with his everlasting arms, I clear away every material possession down to the very atom till finally I can see.
Do you want to know what’s beyond my mountain? Now that would be cheating, wouldn’t it? You have to clear away your own mountain. But I will promise you this. What you see beyond the mountain is the perfect eternal 20/20. The beauty of it all can not be translated into the human tongue, what petty words could capture the essence of it all? But it’s the kind of beauty that makes you ache; the kind that brings you to your knees. It’s the kind of beauty that’s worth living for.
It started at eight o’clock on Christmas Eve morning.
First she needed to bake 3 pies. She needed flour, sugar, cinnamon, apples, butter, pumpkin filling. She preheated the oven, rolled out the dough and mixed the filling together. As the first pie was baking she prepared the pumpkin and the mince meat pie and then began the dough for the Christmas cookies.
As the pies were cooling and the cookies baking she then began to snip the green beans and peel the potatoes. She had to prepare enough for 25 people so she figured a couple of pounds each plus corn. Then the cookies were ready and she let those cool and she put more into the oven. Then she made the Jell-O for the fruit salad and started decorating the cookies that had cooled.
The turkey had been defrosting since Monday.
At one o’clock she went to the store. Not that she wanted to. She had started her Christmas shopping in September when the days were still warm and Christmas was months away. But now she had last minute gifts to buy for a husband who forgot and for unexpected relatives who had rsvp’d the last minute.
So she fought the crowds. While she was at the mall she saw greed, anger, rudeness and overall selfishness that now represented the season for the world more than Santa and his reindeer. She battled her way through the sea of people, mumbling excuse me and pardon me with an ounce of sincerity. She purchased what she needed then she rushed back to her car and fought the traffic. It was the year end battle of humanity and she fought it as best she could.
She was home by three. She began the sweet potatoes and finished the fruit salad. She forgot the rolls at the store but she would have to go back for those later. Tonight they were going to her mother’s house and she only had an hour to get the children ready. But somehow she did it. By five o’clock she carried the pie to the car. Her husband was ready and dressed in the pants and shirt she had chosen although he had wanted something more casual. She turned and looked at the children sitting in the back seat amid boxes and gifts. They were scrubbed, polished and cleaned as much as they could be. She was satisfied so off they went.
They then threw themselves into the bustle and chaos of her mother’s house. All her siblings were there with all their spouses and children so the noise only increased over the course of the night. Presents were exchanged, food eaten, conversation made, more food eaten, then dessert. Finally it was a quarter to ten. Good byes and hugs were given and taken, coats put on, sleepy children gathered and carried to the car.
A half an hour later everyone was in bed, and then finally so was she. She drifted off to sleep after trying to figure out if she remembered everything for Christmas day. Then she dreamt of turkeys, pies that didn’t turn out and not enough sweet potatoes to go around. Plus the rolls. Where was she going to pick up the rolls? So it wasn’t really sleep but a prelude to the next day where she would have to do it all over again. Hopefully then it turned out better.
So it was off to church the next day and she sat through the sermon. Where could she get the rolls? Who would be open on Christmas day? Maybe they could go without. She dragged her attention back to the sermon. Was Meijer open? She thought she read a sign saying they were open from nine to five on Christmas. Was he on the last point yet? Did she have enough Cool Whip? She needed it for the fruit salad and the pumpkin pie. Finally they sang the last Psalter number and the doxology. Off they were.
They stopped at the store and were home by 11:30. She had started the turkey before church and he was cooking nicely in the oven. She got the appetizers ready and turned down the crock pots. She set out the plastic ware and napkins, made sure the children were ready, and found five minutes to freshen up. Then it was back to the kitchen.
At one o’clock they started to arrive—her husband’s side of the family. They poured in with their coats, scarves and gloves, gifts and cards, desserts and dishes. For a brief moment she thought it was an invasion. Then the laughing and talking began, the eating and the tasting. She tried to visit with people when she could but for the most part she commandeered the kitchen. For dinner she had to start everything at the right time so that it would be done cooking at the exact time as everything else. No easy feat, but she accomplished it. People ate till they could hardly move. Then dessert was served.
At seven o’clock began the cleaning of the kitchen. Dishes, pots and pans, cups and silverware were piled like mountains as far as she could see. Helping hands made the work light but it was still work and so once again she put her hands in the sink and declared war on her entire kitchen.
She set the garbage by the door for her husband to take out but fifteen minutes later it was still there. She tried to ignore it but finally gave in. With a sigh she picked it up and stepped out the door.
She walked further from the house and gradually the noise of the people decreased till it was just a muffled buzz that the silence of the night drowned out. It must have snowed earlier. Funny how she hadn’t noticed. The moon was a winter moon and she couldn’t tell whether the moon reflected the snow or the snow reflected the moon. The air was clean, crisp, brittle cold. The snow was fluffy like cotton balls. It covered the earth like a heavy blanket. It was beautiful in a silent unassuming way. There were no trumpets or parades to announce its beauty. No lights and ornaments from men. It needed none.
Before she came outside, before she stepped into the night, Bethlehem had seemed so far away. Thousands and thousand of miles away, across the ocean and the desert, over mountains and through valleys, back in the forgotten chambers of her memory. Sometimes there was a dense fog that covered the little town especially at this time of year. The fog was a swirl of holiday rush, Christmas shopping, family get-togethers. There was so much that she allowed to come between her and this tiny city that the prophets had spoken about so long ago.
I have not given her a name but really she doesn’t need one. If you insist that she must have a name then call her Any Child of God. So often during the holidays we too find ourselves overwhelmed by all our commitments. All the parties, family gatherings, work parties and any other obligation become like the current of a rushing river. It sweeps us past the holidays causing this time of wonder to become nothing more than a blur.
So step out. The current, no doubt has a hold of you. So just step out of that current. Whether into a literal silent night or into the silent night of 2000 years ago when Salvation became flesh. Whether the holiday season is your busiest season or whether it is a relatively peaceful time let the current rush on without you. Set yourself to the task, to the temporal responsibility, but always remember to think on these things. Do not neglect the preaching, no matter how fast your mind is running. Do not neglect your prayer life, no matter how tired you may be morning and evening. These are the beautiful offspring of the season that belong to us because of the one Offspring that made himself of no reputation and humbled himself unto death.
But now we must return to the woman. We cannot leave her standing outside in the night. It’s too cold out and besides, it looks like it’s beginning to snow. So she steps back inside, into the noise and chaos of her home. She must return to her tasks and responsibilities. They do not disappear. They are, in this lifetime, ever before her. Gradually the volume increases until it once again it becomes a roar. But no matter. The noise may be in her ears and in her mind but not in her heart. Her heart is locked and sealed by the silent night.
Three days ago he had given himself over to insanity. Not the insanity of the schizophrenic or the deranged, but the mindless silence of a man past speaking. How long he had been in this cage he could not say. It was since the beginning of his remembering. And where remembering began he did not know. He could not see past that point.
At the beginning of his remembering the Enemy had bound his hands and taken him deep within the cave. He could not forget the Enemy, fierce creatures of ghoulish design, of the earth yet unnatural. They kept their faces hidden from the sun, their bodies cloaked in long coarse robes. Only their skeletal hands could be seen. They tied his hands with rope and lead him deep into the earth through the cave of the mountain.
He looked up one last time at the sun and blinked against its glare before they lead him down to the abyss. He did not know how many days they traveled. It seemed to him that the days rolled into weeks as they journeyed through caverns, large tunnels and small, past great hidden lakes and through corridors that lead to nowhere till finally they reached the center of the earth.
The Enemy brought him to a cavern as vast as the sanctuary of a cathedral but broader. The height of the ceiling seemed to go on forever so that even though he strained his neck he could not see the end of it. Yet the one force that engulfed him upon entering the cavern was the coldness that took a hold of him with a fierce grasp. It was the coldness of death and the grave.
There before him lay the hole of the abyss that almost covered the entire diameter of the cave itself. He felt the drafts of cold despair exhaling from its mouth. They lead him around the edge to the other side. There sat two cages, one on solid ground, the other hanging precariously in the air over the abyss. They threw him into the cage on solid ground and locked the door. Mind yourself they said. You may cry out here but no one will hear you. Then he watched as they marched away till the light of their torches faded to a dim nothing. He was all alone, the coldness and the silence his only companions.
And so the days went by but were they really days to him? In darkness what is the measure of a moment when the day does not chase the night? To him night and day blended into a melancholy one, the endless pitch dark ever before him.
Till finally that single moment came where he could not remember any light or the heat of the sun against his skin. He sat up and panicked. He rattled the bars of his cage and cried out into the silence but only the echoes of the cavern took notice. He could not forget! He had to remember, remember, remember the light! The ray of the sun flashed across his mind and was gone. The despair swallowed him till finally he sat in silence. For this man it was now eternal night.
Then one day the enemy returned. He did not get up to greet them but only watched their movements with the glass eyes of one who cannot see. Yet in the midst of the enemy he saw a pile of rags that reminded him of his own. He did not understand why they brought him rags. He had plenty of his own. Then he realized that the rags were not just rags but a man. His face was badly bruised, beaten and swollen with pain. The man appeared to be sleeping. Or were his eye so swollen shut that he could not open them?
The Enemy pulled on a rope that was tied to the cage hanging over the abyss. They pulled the cage to the edge of the cliff and when it was close enough they threw the man in the cage. They let go of the rope till it rested over the abyss again. Then the Enemy left, their torches fading away and then were gone.
When they left he sat up and looked out into the darkness. He could not tell if the man was alive or, worse yet, slowly dying. And so he sat in silence and watched the man in the other cage. He did not know if he was staring at death or watching death happen.
As he sat watching the man sanity returned to him by taking a slow labored path. Maybe it was because he looked at human flesh that brought to mind his own humanity. The rags so like his own, the withered hands and feet, the torn flesh. Underneath the bruises and cuts of the man’s face he could see the frailty and pain of starvation. Was he looking at his own face? This man was so like him.
“Water,” said the man. He stared back at him. He could not remember how to speak.
“Water,” the man said again.
“There is no water here,” he replied.
“What is your name?” the man asked.
“I do not know.”
“You have no name?”
Sometimes you think you won’t make it through the week.
I mean that in a spiritual sense. The week seems so long. You battle the enemy, you travel up the hill. The enemy never relents. The incline of the hill never slackens but instead you keep going up, up, up. You wonder where Sunday is. You need it now more than ever. You feel worn out and tired. You just need to lay your burden aside, to close your eyes and let your mind rest a while from the troubles of the world.
And finally Sunday arrives. You reach the top of the hill that you’ve been climbing all week. You look down and see a beautiful valley full of waterfalls and pools, sweet grass and tall trees that shade you from the sun. You sit and you rest. You could almost close your eyes, so peaceful is the beauty that surrounds you. Then you hear His voice and it is sweeter than the grass that you smell and it shades you from the cruel glare of your sin more than the trees could ever shade you from the heat of the sun. What He has to say fills your soul and quiets you as he leads you by the still waters.
If only this was our response every Sunday. Yet our sinful natures make us incapable of always recognizing Sunday for what it really is. We don’t view it as rest for our souls, as a glimpse of what heaven will be. Instead we use it as another day to mentally and physically accomplish the things we didn’t take care of during the week. And it’s a shame that we do because we lose the advantage and beauty of the day.
The advantage of Sunday is found in the knowledge that it is a day of rest. The world plows through the day as if it were any other. They think that by doing so it will somehow redeem them, that if they have more time for themselves then at the end of their lives they can feel fulfilled. But fulfillment has never been found within the ego and the only result of self-fulfillment is self-destruction. The secret of the day lies within the words that are spoken over the pulpit. Preaching is the key to true rest for the believer who wearily travels as a pilgrim through this world.
We are particular about the sounds of preaching that come to us over the pulpit. Since it is the chief means of grace and since faith comes by hearing this word proclaimed the only thing we want to hear are the words of Christ Himself. Man’s opinion cannot save us and the advice of society can only leaves us frustrated as if there were no end to our misery. The comfort of salvation comes to us through the peace that Christ gives to us by the Spirit. He uses the preaching to show us the horrible condition of our sin, the dangerous state that we live in and the knowledge of the cross as being the act of God that will completely save us.
When Christ was on the earth He instructed the people in parables because in His wisdom He chose to make the simple things confound the wise and the Pharisees. By speaking in parables He fulfilled the Old Testament prophecy of Psalm 78: 2, “I will open my mouth in a parable: I will utter dark sayings of old.” The words and parables of Christ were so great that certain Greeks came to the feast to inquire of Jesus. John 12: 20 and 21 state, “And there were certain Greeks among them that came up to worship at the feast. The same came therefore to Philip…saying, Sir, we would see Jesus.”
It is no different for the child of God who sits in the pew in a church in America than it was for the child of God who lived at the time of Christ. We say to the minister every Sunday, “Sir, we would see Jesus.” We want to hear the mysteries of the kingdom revealed to us, explanations of the parables spoken by Christ. We need to hear how the prophecies of old were fulfilled by the child in a manger and how God used the history and the doings of the ancient world to bring this promise to fruition. We need to hear how the sufferings of His life afforded us salvation that was sealed eternally on the cross. We need to hear how He conquered death and left this world with the promise of the coming of His Spirit. We need to hear that Christ is coming again and how the signs of the time point to His return. We need to hear what He has to say to us because the sound of His voice is what pleases our regenerated hearts the most.
Sometimes we think that we don’t need to hear these things because we’ve heard them so many times before. But if you feel that way then you don’t know your old man of sin very well. He is so very crafty and persuasive – and above all persistent. He wants you to forget every doctrine that you know. Because if you don’t know anything about the teachings of Christ then he knows that you have nothing to fight him with. What do you say to him when you are tempted to gossip about someone? No, I can’t gossip about this person. It’s wrong. Then he’ll ask why. And what do you say? Because my minister said so. He’ll talk you out of it just like the serpent did in the Garden of Eden. The only thing that will defeat him is doctrine, the words and teachings of Christ Himself. Say to your old man, No, I can’t talk bad about this person because God commands me to love my neighbor as myself. He commands me of this because He first loved me. And if God so loved me then I ought also to love my brother. Try that with your old man of sin. The word of Christ will break him because the power of Christ’s word lives in you. They will break him because it is preordained that they should do such. It is a dark saying of old that God has spoken since forever. He will crush the enemy simply by the fulfillment of His spoken word.
The people of the church need to hear the practical application of the word of God. But they can only know this by knowing the doctrines that define these applications. The two are interwoven. Doctrine means nothing if the people do not apply in to their lives (faith without works is dead). Yet the people are lost in the art of application if they do not understand why thy must do these things (Thy word is a lamp unto my feet).
Why does God command that we be holy? Because He is holy and dwells in perfect peace within the Trinity. Why must we love one another and strive to dwell in unity? Because God, the Son and Spirit dwell in unity and love in the Godhead. In His mercy He has brought us into the covenant and made us able to partake of His love and friendship. God could have demanded these things of us and given no explanation. And we would have had to obey them because He decreed them. But in His wisdom He made us rationale creatures capable of thinking, of processing thoughts and using reasoning to come to logical explanations. Why? So that every thought that you have, every idea that comes into your mind draws you to the conclusion that God is great and worthy of all praise.
So if you seek practical application in the preaching that you hear then you would be wise to look in a mirror. You are the practical application. As you hear the doctrine and parables revealed and explained to you Christ engrafts them into your heart through the working of the Spirit. Did you recently hear a sermon on the Trinity? Then remember it the next time you are watching the television or on the Internet. You will say to yourself, “I can’t watch this because I remember what the minister said about the triune nature of God. So beautiful is the love and unity that the Father, Son and Spirit dwell in that I cannot corrupt my mind by watching this filth.” This is what it means to work out your salvation with fear and trembling. Salvation has been given to you and by the power of Christ as He renews your heart you spread that salvation to cover every aspect of your life. The words that He speaks to you over the pulpit are the candles that light your way as you walk in a way pleasing to Him.
Guard the vessel that God has ordained to bring you His word. Do not attack the minister with the cruel expectations of your imagination. Sometimes we demand of others what we ourselves are incapable of achieving. But don’t let this be with your minister. Demand of him that you would see Jesus. You want to hear about the One you love the most. You don’t want the minister’s opinions. You can discuss those over coffee sometime if you wish. You don’t want anything watered down, nothing minced with pleasant empty words that are nothing more than nothingness. You want to hear the truth because you are sick. Deathly sick. And the Balm of Gilead is the only One that can heal you.
Remember to always do your minister a favor by remembering that he is only a man. Do not exalt him too high or criticize him too incessantly. These are the fruits of darkness. The devil would have us focus on man rather than God. He would also want us to criticize the means that God uses to speak to us. Even Aaron and Miriam complained about Moses because he married an Ethiopian woman. God gave leprosy to Miriam because they doubted the means that God had chosen to reveal Himself. It angers God when we critique the man rather than meditate on the message that God brought to us through that man. It is not given to us to judge who is worthy of being ordained. Rather it is commanded of us that we should pray diligently for these men who have been called to feed the flock of Jesus Christ.
Christ speaks to us in a loud voice or in gentle whisper. He speaks to us through ordained men in so many different ways. But it wasn’t how well the message was delivered and how hard the church shook from the power of the minister’s voice that matters. The exhibitions of men’s talents don’t delight the Lord. The outward show of our sacrifices don’t please Him. He isn’t deceived by the vanities of human talents. God looks at our hearts and we must always be mindful of that as we sit in the pew. Let the minister answer to God for any shortcomings he may have. He stands in the need of the cross just like any other child of God. But remember as you listen that God is looking at your heart to see. Here is the test, He says. Hear my words, my dark sayings of old. Now sacrifice your only child. Sacrifice the one thing you love the most: yourself. And listen. And then do. This is the test that is tied into every sermon that you hear. The searching and discerning eye of God to see if there be any wicked ways in you. He looks for the listening ear and the willing heart, for the seed that takes root to become the olive branches of His Zion.
“What’s in a word,” they say? What’s in a word? You couldn’t imagine your life without them. It would be so lonely. Unable to communicate, unable to express your thoughts. So much frustration, so many walls built all because you couldn’t say what was on your mind.
Words are so essential in how we communicate with one another; yet sometimes we can place too much emphasis on them. Yes, they can define us, they can help us and they can build us up. They can do so many things. But the words that we speak, the ones that come from our own lips, can never save us.
The one area of our lives where words are such a blessing is in the life of our prayers. It’s amazing that we who are so unworthy can come before the throne of God with our petitions and requests. Prayer is a joy of the covenant, and the fact that God has chosen us for such should amaze us every day.
It’s important that we come to God in the right attitude and the right frame of mind. We must come in humility and therefore bow our heads. We must come fully focused and therefore we close our eyes and fold our hands. These things keep us from distractions. There is a purpose to these actions. They are not meaningless rituals or empty gestures. There are habits that we form in order to get us in the right state of mind when we pray.
It follows then that we are careful with the words that we use. We don’t throw any random word in. We avoid those words that sound disrespectful or nonchalant. We use words that reflect our awe of God’s majesty. Using pronouns like “thee” and “thou” help us separate God from the ordinary, the mundane and the vulgar. Such language come from a time when people were slightly more respectful of their peers and elders. The use of thee and thou reminds us that we are not talking to a friend, a spouse, or any other human being. Instead we are speaking to the Creator and Sustainer of life.
If there is ever an opportunity to give God more respect we should never deny it. The use of thee and thou is such an opportunity and can become a healthy, meaningful habit. It will condition us to realize the glory of God and the unworthiness that is inherent to us. It will help us to mentally divide the common from the holy and speaks to us “Remove your shoes for this, this is holy ground.”
Yet we may never assume that there is righteousness in these words. They do not make us holier or bring us closer to heaven. Christ and the sanctifying work of His Holy Spirit do that. The words of depraved sinners can never buy any salvation on their behalf. We may enter boldly before the throne of grace yet Christ intercedes every prayer and brings it to the Father. The Father hears the sweet voice of His Son as He brings the prayers of those that the Father has given to Him.
God is pleased by prayers that come from a sincere heart. He is not pleased by the sacrifices on the altar. He is not pleased by the empty rituals of man, by what is ostentatious and showy. Christ rejected the prayer of the Pharisee as He rejects all prayers that have a self-seeking motive.
Christ knows His own and mediates for all His sheep no matter how well trained in praying they might be. He mediates for the young child learning to pray. He mediates for the learned professor who has been praying for years. He tries the heart to see if His people pray in faith whether they use thee and thou or whether they don’t. We can not judge what is heard by the Father although we can judge what is disrespectful and displeasing to God. Some prayers blatantly mock the holiness of God such as the prayer of the Pharisee. We therefore pray that God gives us the grace to never pray in such a manner.
The publican did not lift his eyes when he prayed. He knew that he was unworthy to be in the presence of God. So it must be with us. Our prayers are not worthy to be interceded by Christ. We are not worthy in and of ourselves to have our petitions brought before the Father. Yet in His amazing love, He does hear our prayers. There is no need for you to lift your eyes when you pray to see if heaven will respond or man will see. Always remember that God hears and sees the heart and He knows every beat. So in faith find your corner where it will be conducive to pray. Choose the best words of your heart, words of love and respect because this is to communicate with the One who caused you to speak, who caused you to say Abba, Father when you were still in your sin. Fall upon your knees and say, “God be merciful to me, a sinner.”
Of all the parables that are given to us in the Bible, I have always loved the parable of the good Samaritan. Perhaps I might even acknowledge it as my favorite and I can’t help but wonder if there are others who would agree with me. We are drawn to this story because it is so profound although it might not seem so at first glance. It is a simple story that relates to us the complex nature of sacrificial, selfless love. In our lives and throughout history this parable is the trademark, the very definition of compassion.
The act of compassion on the part of the Samaritan is so foreign to our natures although we don’t like to admit it. We can relate to the man who was attacked. He fell among thieves and we can’t help but think that this has happened to us as well. We also have fallen on hard times at the hands of others who were supposed to treat us fairly. They stripped us of all that we had, hurt us, maybe even physically and left us where they found us not caring whether we lived or died.
Such it is in the world, in a vast earth where so many walk not knowing true love because they don’t know the Father from whom this loves flows. But I am not surprised to find such mentality in the world and neither, I believe, are you. Their news of murder, rape, and abuse is a violent noise that troubles our ears. But it is not a surprising noise that catches us unaware. It is a constant sound that we listen to all the day. We see it in the newspapers, on the Internet, and in every form of media. The violence of this earth is as common as the element of air and it seems that so many breathe it in more consistently than the oxygen that keeps them alive.
But is it not so that the actions of the priest and the Levite are not as foreign to us as they should be? These two men go out of their way to avoid helping the man who had been attacked. And so it can be, too often, within the church. We do not simply see around people that we feel uncomfortable helping. We go out of our way to avoid them. Perhaps they are different, but I have yet to meet an individual who isn’t strange or different in their own way. Perhaps they have some quality that is displeasing or annoying, but do we think so highly of ourselves that we cannot see that we may contain the same? Left on our own, in our original state of sin, we are a foul stench in the nostrils of God. We are as waste that has deteriorated in the noon time heat. On our own we are undesirable, with no redeeming qualities, hardly worth the air we breathe. Sad to hear? But it’s so true! The only good about us is nothing that we did ourselves; rather it is the gift of God. So how can it logically follow, that we who, outside of the salvation of Christ, are a rather disdainful group of people should come to value ourselves so much?
To find such a lack of compassion within can give us grief and cause a certain kind of ache in our hearts. The one place where we should feel the very safest can sometimes be the one place where we are not. This happens too often, a mark of our depraved natures yet we know that there is no excuse. How can it be, that we have been given grace so freely, find it impossible, if not improbable, to give grace to the ones that we live in fellowship with?
We are never as compassionate as we should be. Our sinful natures hinder that. But it isn’t enough to hide behind the excuses or to get comfortable with our feelings to the extent that we ignore how God wants us to truly act towards one another. Our lack of compassion towards each other must always grieve us to the soul. No one is exempt from this. We have all fallen short. Perhaps we think, oh, when I am heaven then I will do right to that individual, then I will be kind and considerate to them. But that is not what God requires of us. He does not demand that we start to be holy when we get to heaven. He commands us to be holy now, just us he has commanded us from all eternity.
Compassion is an obsessive desire to put aside your needs and think of the neighbor first. Do you not like word obsessive? But that is how it must be. There is no other way to explain it. You must be consistent in compassion. It is an emotion that you must always keep on your mind because it is the hardest one to control. Satan told Eve to think of herself first and he has been telling us to do the same ever since. Compassion is so difficult because it is not natural. Yet when we succumb in this way to the devil we are robbed of moments that otherwise could have shined so brightly as an example of Christ.
There is only one way to give: completely, as Christ did. Compassion can not be done half heartedly. You must give completely of yourself, till you have nothing left, till your strength is spent. And then, when you are done, give some more. But even then all the giving that you do would hardly compare to everything that God has given you. So then keep giving. Give everything you have and lay it at your neighbor’s feet. Christ gave his life willingly and He did not begrudge the sacrifice nor look disdainfully upon us though we caused Him so much grief. Instead He was moved to compassion and looked on us in love. So then take up the cross and give your love, your possessions, your life if you must.
Give up your opinions too. We are rational beings who have been given the ability to think and therefore it is only natural that we should have opinions. Now opinions that are founded in a correct understanding of the word of God are not opinions but rather a correct understanding of the word of God. Therefore I’m not talking about those opinions. And surely if we have an observation or an interpretation that others may not have, there is no wrong in speaking these things. Yet sometimes we take our opinions too far and we begin to treat them like cherished children, pet favorites that we simply cannot let go of. We begin to covet them and view them as worthy of being noticed regardless of what effect they may have on those around us. Perhaps so and so has sinned and even though they have repented we still do not think it is enough and in our opinion they should do further penance for what they have done. Therefore we will ostracize them. In this example an opinion took on the heretical teaching of Rome that we certainly do not hold to. It became a man centered doctrine like so many of our opinions can become if we do not rein them in.
I find that I tire very easily of my own opinions. If they are not founded on the word of God, I must admit that I am not very impressed with them at all. We hear so often the phrase “your opinion is valuable too.” I can’t help but shrug my shoulders at this statement. I’m not very impressed with it from a Christian’s point of view. I have seen my opinions do many things, mostly fail and prove to be a later embarrassment to myself. Perhaps they are valuable and worthy of being heard, who can say? I cannot presume too much on this matter. I can only value my opinion as it is founded on the word of God. My opinions will die with me, they contain no earthly value. They are nothing but petty differences that weigh me down as if I carried heavy stones in my pockets.
We may hold onto our opinions but only if we are ready and willing to let them go in a moment’s notice. If your opinion should come between you and a brother and cause that brother to despair, don’t hang on to it and let it grow in between you like some grotesque weed. You then must think nothing of it, but let that opinion go. We are not, after all, members of a church that is founded on what we think is right and best. We are members of the body of Christ and He demands that we live in unity and love that is founded in the truth of His word.
Young people too must live a life of compassion which is especially hard because it can be such a self absorbed age. If you are mean to another person at school or anywhere in your life, you will only regret your actions later. The memory of your cruelty will be an embarrassment to your soul and become a thorn in you flesh. Yes, God wipes your slate clean, but Satan will not let you easily forget.
When children are cruel to one another the world says “kids will be kids.” A dangerous response to be sure, yet at times is our response any better? People say, “well, what did you expect, they are totally depraved.” Yes, that explains why they sinned but it does not define our response to the situation. Is that our attitude towards God when we come to Him in prayer to confess what we have done? Do we think that God goes easy on us because we are hindered by natures that are prone to sin?
When we down play the sins of our children and young people we do an inconceivable amount of damage to their spiritual life and show them a severely lacking amount of compassion. We must hold them accountable, not only for the sake of the child who is being teased but for the sake of the child who is doing the teasing. Rather they face our wrath and displeasure now for a short duration than face the wrath and displeasure of God for all eternity. Unsure of what to do? Then follow the example of Christ. He looked on us in our state of misery and had compassion on us. Rather than leaving us there to wallow and drown in our sin, He caused us to repent and made us new.
Consider this. If we should be walking in the way and I see you walk right by the man who had been robbed and I say nothing, who showed a greater lack of compassion? You or me? Was it you who missed an opportunity to show the mercies of Christ to another? Or was it me who let you walk away from that opportunity, deeper into the displeasure of God?
The sacrifice and death of God’s son was a moment that forever altered our world. It translated our lives from despair to redemption and became a bridge that would close the gap that separated us from God. It even closed the gap between us as well. Not sure of what to say to another member of the church? Then speak of the cross for it is worthy of being mentioned and it will not fail you for words. Mention his sacrifice without fear for you will not be at a loss of what to say. Speak to each other about salvation for this conversation starter is the outline of all eternity.
The cross of Christ will keep us in place when we visit the hospital, nursing home, funeral home and we feel awkward and don’t know what to do. It helps us at times when we are with people who seem to be polar opposites from us, especially with the elderly of our denomination. We wonder what we have in common with them. Our lives seem so different. But speak to them of the cross for it is language that they know and at times they speak it better and more fairly than any other person in our lives. They know the translation of heavenly matters so well because that is all they see. It is set before their eyes as a prize of a race well run. Indeed, the elderly in our churches are more proficient in a language and dialect that we are only gradually beginning to understand. So speak to them of these things and learn.
Why do we hesitate to show such compassion to one another? What more is there to do than living, bathing, glorying in the love of Christ? What else can we do but let go of the chains and malice that hold us down. Look at the brother or sister whom you have told to sit at your foot stool and see them as Christ sees them. Say that you would give your life for them. Impossible you say? Satan thinks the same thing. Impossible for Christ to love you! You have done great evil to him and worse! Yet Satan lies. There is nothing impossible in Christ. You do not deserve His love yet it is yours and He will never forsake you.
So don’t forsake the brother in Christ. In his saddest moment, when he is at his lowest, do not fail him. Let go of your inhibitions for they are the product of your old man and they will only paralyze you. So then let go. A thousand times if you must and you will have to because we are earthy and therefore always learning and starting over again. Let go and live and learn that the grace of God is sufficient to cause you to walk in the spirit of compassion. Ask this of God always, wrestle with Him if you must, but do not let go of Him till he blesses you in this way. Ask it in faith, never waver, and ask boldly. He will give this to you because He is your Father and He loves you for Christ’ sake. He would never give stones for bread.
Between you and me there are so many kind words not spoken, so many acts of compassion left undone. We could almost despair at the distance that is between us. It seems to be an abyss so wide that we cannot even begin to measure the length or the depth of it. Between you and me there is too much. So it only seems logical that we go our separate ways.
So we walk away from each other and we travel deeper into our own lives. We become consumed with the things that have to do with ourselves and we give very little time to think of one another. Yet God is compassionate. His mercies fail not. He brings us to our knees, whether it is at the rising of the sun or in the shadows of the moon. He brings us low. He causes us to journey a different way, a way less selfish, a way less ungodly. And we keep walking till He brings us to the cross. There is our greatest moment of grace, when we see the cross and we can not look away nor do we ever want to. It captures our attention and the power of it cuts through our souls so that we can breath, feel, and live as we never had before. And we know, because God causes us to know, that this is the sum of everything, this is the true center of the universe.
Yet God does not leave us there as if just the mere discovery were enough. He forms us to be tools that might serve and praise Him. And He does this in many ways. He does it by opening our eyes. And then we see as we had never seen before.
There are so many others here too at the foot of the cross. We are not the only ones. So many weak, wounded, and weary. So many who are here because they must either be healed by the cross or they will die. Many are faces that are not familiar to us. Yet many are faces that we recognize. We find those we never thought we would have to think twice about ever again. We find those who we didn’t think were good enough for our company, those that we secretly scorned. We even find those who, in our pride and contempt, we banished from our hearts. So many people we have wronged, how could we not be discouraged?
But here, at the foot of the cross, there is nothing that separates or divides us. When we meet here we know that the abyss was only our imaginations and fears. Truly Christ has showed us that we are one in Him. We realize then that between you and me there is nothing because we are engrafted into Christ and are no longer you and me but His.
“Why art thou cast down, O my soul, and why art thou disquieted within me?” Psalm 42:11.
When I walk through the forest on a warm summer morning, I find that it may be a hard thing to catch a glimpse of a songbird. They blend so well with the foliage and they flutter and fly so quickly from branch to branch that it takes a careful patient eye to spot them. It seems to me that their movements are the discontented notes of some mad composer. These little creatures are hardly ever still as they fly up and down the octaves of the forest trees.
I feel at times as though I can relate and that their characteristics are patterned after my own soul. They are as familiar to me as the faces of the ones that I love. The disquieted notes of the songbirds translate into echoes that reverberate through my mind. How often my soul flutters and flies within me, I cannot count and the restlessness of my soul is more science than fiction.
As I continue to walk through the forest I stop along a still pool that reflects the trees and the sky in all different shades of metallic silver and brown. I look at the dark glass surface of the water, hoping to see the reflection of the birds as they fly overhead among the branches. Yet when I look down, I see no reflection of birds and trees but only my face staring back at me. And somehow, I am not surprised.
Our souls are such hard creatures to keep still within us. By the nature that is ours through birth, our minds are not natural hosts that culture content thoughts that rest in the design of God. The reaction that too frequently flows from our hearts causes us to buck against the will of God and struggle against the current of His divine plan.
For some, true contentment in the will of Christ is at best isolated moments that visit them at irregular intervals in their lives. For others, contentment is a bridge that merely takes them from one struggle in their life to another. And for a few people, honest contentment of the biblical nature is a foundation that upholds them through their entire life and on which their beliefs, ideas, hopes, and desires are built.
It is easy for us to be content when we have what we want. We live at ease when all our cupboards are full, when there is more than enough money in our savings account, and when no untidy situations are linked to our name or the names of those that we love. But that contentment belongs to the world and is really nothing more than an illusion. We may think at those moments that we are content but in truth we are frightened; frightened that these things will be taken away from us, that we will be stripped naked of all that we have. And it is hard to stand before God when our sins have revealed to us how naked we really are.
How content would we be if we did not live the affluent lifestyles that we do? If we only had one can of food in our cupboard for the week instead of multiples, how well would we sleep at night? What if we had to live without the little amenities that soften the harsh conditions of this life? Well, no matter, for God has, in His wisdom, chosen us to live in the age that we do—in rich capitalist America, where gain is religion and success is creed. We live in a society where the state of contentment is a goal that we reach later in life after we have earned our millions and established our name. This is the age of wandering eyes, of always wanting what we don’t have and structuring our lives so that we may pursue what we actually don’t need. And the challenge of living in such an age is as great as any that those before us have had to endure. Can our slovenly minds, which are dulled by the wealth of this world, find peace in the will of God and live every day in the knowledge of the sufficiency of His grace? Or will we rather adapt to the philosophy of man and every day desire more than we need?
Our minds so often assault us with lies that the devil whispered to Eve in the Garden of Eden. We believe them to be true and able to make us gods unto ourselves. We believe these lies regardless of what shape they come in and no matter how many times they are proven false. It seems as though it is too hard of a lesson for us to learn. Advertisements show us what we lack and what we need to possess. Our minds are so ready and so willing to believe them.
So every day we are beset by enemies in front of us and behind us and everywhere we go. So many strong bulls of Bashan are ready to charge at us from every angle. And yet none are as strong as the ones inside our heads.
* * * * *
“For thou. Lord, hast not forsaken them that seek thee.” Psalm 9:10.
A Christian without contentment is an improbable sum, an equation that just won’t add up or reach a conclusion. We cannot foresee our needs nor arrange solutions that will work towards the good of our salvation. We are too limited, too lacking in knowledge, and in all honesty, too biased to choose those things that will bring us closer to Christ. If given the opportunity, we would choose circumstances and possessions based on the desires of our human hearts and not on what is spiritual and eternal. And in the end those things that we would choose would endanger the exercise of our personal devotions and cause a rift in our prayer life that would leave us feeling empty and void. It is too risky for us to try to place our lives in our own hands. There is too much to lose that we can’t afford to live without.
Contentment outside of the knowledge of Christ is more than improbable. It is impossible. No man can look at himself with honest eyes and like what he sees. Even if he is self-centered and narcissist that is all the more proof that he is unhappy with who he is. He only loves himself so much for the fear that no one else will. The world says to be happy with who you are, but outside of Christ who can be? I can only measure myself by my failures, my inability to consistently think of others, and my shortcomings in godly living that leave me frustrated and angry at myself. I cannot be happy with who I am because I can’t even find myself under the filth of my own sins.
The only happiness that I have known is when I am seeking the face of God. All other forms of happiness are facades and peculiar types that erode with the hours of the day. But when I seek the face of God, there is a happiness that grasps my soul in a comfort that I can recognize as being eternal.
* * * * *
“And he arose, and rebuked the wind, and said unto the sea, Peace. be still. And the wind ceased and there was a great calm.” Mark 4:39.
I have searched so many places for contentment. It was given to me to desire the peace that passes all understanding because I knew it was the key to living godly in Christ Jesus.
And this is where I finally found it: in my darkest hour. When the sky was a palpable black and the only light that visited the earth was that of the lightening shooting out of the storm clouds. My life, I thought, prevailed against me. My sin, I believed, would consume me. Satan, I cried, would surely overwhelm me. And the winds swept higher and higher and the storms clouds gathered faster and faster until the warmth of the sun was only a distant memory for me.
It was too hard to stand because the storm of my sins had beaten me down into the face of the earth so far. I had not even the strength to reach out my hand. I was so low because I knew that it was my own design that had brought me here.
And yet the mercies of God were able, more than able, to penetrate the deep darkness of my sins until finally I felt the warmth of the light of His Son against my skin. God taught my heart to pray, Save me, again, and again, and again. And I know that I shall never stop saying these words till the day that I die.
My thankful heart knows salvation and at times this knowledge is too much for me. I was given peace when I was the most undeserving. I found contentment when I should have been banished from the sight of God forever. I found it in the eye of the hurricane.
* * * * *
“When the poor and needy seek water, and there is none, and their tongue faileth for thirst, I the Lord will hear them, I the God of Israel will not forsake them. I will open rivers in high places, and fountains in the midst of the valleys: I will make the wilderness a pool of water, and the dry land springs of water.” Isaiah 41:1, 18
When the sun came out again I saw the truth of His word so brightly before my eyes. I don’t know how I didn’t see it before but it was there. And this is that truth: we have been given large reservoirs of healing waters in the gift of Christ and His sacrifice. Each drop of water is His word. Each cupful that we drink from these pools is the knowledge of God’s love for us through the death of His Son. What we thought were mirages that our fingers could never touch are really tangible truths that we will grasp for all eternity. And we are fools if we do not take advantage of such.
Soon the storm clouds dispersed and left the sky as quickly as they had come. A whole myriad of dark gray clouds that gathered, then ten, then five, then two, then none. And I watched the song birds shake the rain off their feathers in two rebellious quivers, beat the winds in three measures and lift themselves on the edge of the wind flying into the light of the brightness of the sun. They did not hesitate or falter. They did not doubt the hand of God as he directed the pull of gravity, the strength of the wind, or the craftsmanship of their wings. They flew because they were born for such and it was given to them to fly and they did. He lifts the songbirds on high and the beauty of His hand guiding them amazes me.
Even more beautiful still is the truth that His hand guides me and directs me in ways of love that fortify my salvation in the blood of His son. And they are the ways of peace, of a contentment that will not doubt or falter. God gives unto His children peace now, and tomorrow, and forever in eternity.
Be still my soul.
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