from the mountain to the valley

At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.

Mark 1:9-13

It is uncanny how often a kind of mountaintop spiritual experience is followed by a death valley spiritual experience. I’m not sure what to make of it. It does seem to follow the pattern we see in the gospels, as described above in Mark’s gospel account of Jesus’s experience.

We can say Christ experiences this for us, and that’s a good and little understood point. As long as I’ve been a Christian I don’t understand it well enough, partly I suppose because it’s not taught much. What is obvious is that if Christ experienced something, then we as followers of Christ can expect to experience something of the same.

A lot of times, I’ll want to dismiss it, or somehow get rid of it, or wonder what happened that my soul now seems to be immersed in darkness rather than blessed in light. But perhaps simply accepting that as part of our experience now and continuing on is exactly part of what needs to be done.

Who after experiencing a close and affirming work of grace by the Spirit want to be tempted by the devil? None of us. But there’s no escape from it.

Thankfully Christ did for us what we would fail to do ourselves. Unlike Israel of old, he met the temptation in the wilderness with unwavering, unflinching trust in God and God’s word. Christ does for us his people what we would fail to do ourselves. But in so doing, Christ opens up the way for us to follow. And in this world that following will include something of the same for us.

A part of our experience now.

 

intercepting oneself

I think most anyone would like a do-over in something in their lives. It’s not like God can’t redeem what can’t be undone, but that is no reason to be glad about what was done in the first place. And in the mess called “life,” it all ends up being complicated.

What’s not complicated is out of the wish to undo what was done, the desire to help others avoid the problem and “intercept themselves” from that, knocking down or intercepting the errant pass. Stopping one’s life in their tracks for repentance and help over time in moving in a new direction.

Unfortunately the Protestant or at least Evangelical church seems to be in a free-for-all. For whatever problems the Roman Catholic Church (and I suspect the Eastern Orthodox Church would fit into this as well) has with their traditions, some of them were set in place to help those who had sinned. And we need preventative measures to help those who are struggling, or even in the throes of sin. But alas. Instead we rely on Bible teaching and worship in song, largely, with hopefully people plugging into small groups, etc. But I’m afraid people are left largely on their own. Leadership and I’m referring mainly to pastors are simply and tragically not trained in this. So it ends up being hit and miss.

We at least need to use those who have repented and changed over time to be a help to younger people who may be in danger themselves. It’s not enough to have the Bible. We have to have people who have received wisdom from God either through their own failures or the hard knocks of life, or through witnessing and understanding something of what others have gone through. But none of this seems to me to be taken all that seriously. It is probably more a case of discomfort in not being able to handle that. But if the church had something set in place gathered from the wisdom of the past, how much better off would we all be. And probably some of us would not need to have the wish to intercept themselves.

“in acceptance lies peace”

Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

2 Corinthians 12:7b-10

It is not fun to live in weakness. Ask someone who suffers migraines, or some other physical pain. Or those who suffer from depression or whatever other malady.

One of Amy Carmichael’s poems I think provides some wisdom, entitled, “In Acceptance Lieth Peace.” That is what Paul had to do. Naturally he asked the Lord, even pleaded with him to remove the thorn in the flesh, even a messenger of Satan to torment him. Who wants to live in torment?

But God taught him a deeper lesson. Unfortunately for many of us who probably live with something far less than what Paul experienced, we can easily give in to despair. Or just plain refusing to accept the difficulty we experience, whether inwardly or outwardly.

Instead we need discernment from God to accept what we can’t change ourselves. I have found over and over again in my life, when I finally accept the brutal rough patch, God’s comfort and peace, yes God’s help comes.

I like the fact that the door seems so wide open as to what the weakness might be. We’re not talking about actual sins, though in the weakness the temptation to sin in one way or another is certainly present. We have to learn to embrace our weakness, and weaknesses which surround that. For example my weakness might make me want to isolate so as not to be exposed when God instead wants me to learn a healthy interdependence with others. And above all, a new dependence on him. In and through Jesus.

discouraging thoughts

You deceived me, Lord, and I was deceived;
you overpowered me and prevailed.
I am ridiculed all day long;
everyone mocks me.
Whenever I speak, I cry out
proclaiming violence and destruction.
So the word of the Lord has brought me
insult and reproach all day long.
But if I say, “I will not mention his word
or speak anymore in his name,”
his word is in my heart like a fire,
a fire shut up in my bones.
I am weary of holding it in;
indeed, I cannot.

Jeremiah 20:7-9

We are all wired differently. Jeremiah seems to have been a person who was easily, or at least often discouraged. When you consider what he was up against right from the get go, that he was submerged in discouraging thoughts is hardly a surprise. That he was able to continue on and be faithful to God’s calling to him for nearly 40 years is a testament of God’s faithfulness in his life. The fact is that for Jeremiah God’s word overrode everything, including his discouragement.

When your words came, I ate them;
they were my joy and my heart’s delight,
for I bear your name,
Lord God Almighty.

Jeremiah 15:16

That was said in the midst of turmoil. God and God’s word made the difference needed. Both in settling the prophet, as well as the message he had to set before others.

This is written for us today, and surely should encourage us in the midst of our own difficulties to keep on keeping on in the path God has for us. We can take consolation that it wasn’t easy for Jeremiah, either. Of course we can’t compare our situations with his. Most of us experience nothing so actually dire. But our experiences are just as real.

God will keep us going as we continue on in God’s word and prayer, whatever we have to deal with, no matter what comes. God will help us. In and through Jesus.

from glory to gloom

For the director of music. Of the Sons of Korah. A maskil.

We have heard it with our ears, O God;
our ancestors have told us
what you did in their days,
in days long ago.
With your hand you drove out the nations
and planted our ancestors;
you crushed the peoples
and made our ancestors flourish.
It was not by their sword that they won the land,
nor did their arm bring them victory;
it was your right hand, your arm,
and the light of your face, for you loved them.

You are my King and my God,
who decrees victories for Jacob.
Through you we push back our enemies;
through your name we trample our foes.
I put no trust in my bow,
my sword does not bring me victory;
but you give us victory over our enemies,
you put our adversaries to shame.
In God we make our boast all day long,
and we will praise your name forever.

But now you have rejected and humbled us;
you no longer go out with our armies.
You made us retreat before the enemy,
and our adversaries have plundered us.
You gave us up to be devoured like sheep
and have scattered us among the nations.
You sold your people for a pittance,
gaining nothing from their sale.

You have made us a reproach to our neighbors,
the scorn and derision of those around us.
You have made us a byword among the nations;
the peoples shake their heads at us.
I live in disgrace all day long,
and my face is covered with shame
at the taunts of those who reproach and revile me,
because of the enemy, who is bent on revenge.

All this came upon us,
though we had not forgotten you;
we had not been false to your covenant.
Our hearts had not turned back;
our feet had not strayed from your path.
But you crushed us and made us a haunt for jackals;
you covered us over with deep darkness.

If we had forgotten the name of our God
or spread out our hands to a foreign god,
would not God have discovered it,
since he knows the secrets of the heart?
Yet for your sake we face death all day long;
we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.

Awake, Lord! Why do you sleep?
Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever.
Why do you hide your face
and forget our misery and oppression?

We are brought down to the dust;
our bodies cling to the ground.
Rise up and help us;
rescue us because of your unfailing love.

Psalm 44

Far from triumphalism. In the real world where we live. From glory to gloom. And yet clinging on to the same faith regardless. That is part of the fulfillment of this psalm now for us who are in Christ.

in the not okay

A song. A psalm of the Sons of Korah. For the director of music. According to mahalath leannoth. A maskil of Heman the Ezrahite.

Lord, you are the God who saves me;
day and night I cry out to you.
May my prayer come before you;
turn your ear to my cry.

I am overwhelmed with troubles
and my life draws near to death.
I am counted among those who go down to the pit;
I am like one without strength.
I am set apart with the dead,
like the slain who lie in the grave,
whom you remember no more,
who are cut off from your care.

You have put me in the lowest pit,
in the darkest depths.
Your wrath lies heavily on me;
you have overwhelmed me with all your waves.
You have taken from me my closest friends
and have made me repulsive to them.
I am confined and cannot escape;
my eyes are dim with grief.

I call to you, Lord, every day;
I spread out my hands to you.
Do you show your wonders to the dead?
Do their spirits rise up and praise you?
Is your love declared in the grave,
your faithfulness in Destruction?
Are your wonders known in the place of darkness,
or your righteous deeds in the land of oblivion?

But I cry to you for help, Lord;
in the morning my prayer comes before you.
Why, Lord, do you reject me
and hide your face from me?

From my youth I have suffered and been close to death;
I have borne your terrors and am in despair.
Your wrath has swept over me;
your terrors have destroyed me.
All day long they surround me like a flood;
they have completely engulfed me.
You have taken from me friend and neighbor—
darkness is my closest friend.

Psalm 88

Yes, I believe our salvation is in Christ, and that it’s a grand and glorious salvation. But I distrust teaching or theology which has easy answers, and doesn’t seem to take seriously the struggle and plight we can find ourselves in, even if confined largely to our experience. This is why we can turn again and again to the pages of Scripture. We find it’s for real people, and as we keep going, by faith we’ll come to see that God is just as real. To help us through. But sometimes we do feel alone and overcome. And if I judge correctly through this psalm, that’s okay.

real faith, in the real world

For the director of music. To the tune of “The Doe of the Morning.” A psalm of David.

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from my cries of anguish?
My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,
by night, but I find no rest.

Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One;
you are the one Israel praises.
In you our ancestors put their trust;
they trusted and you delivered them.
To you they cried out and were saved;
in you they trusted and were not put to shame.

But I am a worm and not a man,
scorned by everyone, despised by the people.
All who see me mock me;
they hurl insults, shaking their heads.
“He trusts in the Lord,” they say,
“let the Lord rescue him.
Let him deliver him,
since he delights in him.”

Yet you brought me out of the womb;
you made me trust in you, even at my mother’s breast.
From birth I was cast on you;
from my mother’s womb you have been my God.

Do not be far from me,
for trouble is near
and there is no one to help.

Many bulls surround me;
strong bulls of Bashan encircle me.
Roaring lions that tear their prey
open their mouths wide against me.
I am poured out like water,
and all my bones are out of joint.
My heart has turned to wax;
it has melted within me.
My mouth is dried up like a potsherd,
and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth;
you lay me in the dust of death.

Dogs surround me,
a pack of villains encircles me;
they pierce my hands and my feet.
All my bones are on display;
people stare and gloat over me.
They divide my clothes among them
and cast lots for my garment.

But you, Lord, do not be far from me.
You are my strength; come quickly to help me.
Deliver me from the sword,
my precious life from the power of the dogs.
Rescue me from the mouth of the lions;
save me from the horns of the wild oxen.

I will declare your name to my people;
in the assembly I will praise you.
You who fear the Lord, praise him!
All you descendants of Jacob, honor him!
Revere him, all you descendants of Israel!
For he has not despised or scorned
the suffering of the afflicted one;
he has not hidden his face from him
but has listened to his cry for help.

From you comes the theme of my praise in the great assembly;
before those who fear you I will fulfill my vows.
The poor will eat and be satisfied;
those who seek the Lord will praise him—
may your hearts live forever!

All the ends of the earth
will remember and turn to the Lord,
and all the families of the nations
will bow down before him,
for dominion belongs to the Lord
and he rules over the nations.

All the rich of the earth will feast and worship;
all who go down to the dust will kneel before him—
those who cannot keep themselves alive.
Posterity will serve him;
future generations will be told about the Lord.
They will proclaim his righteousness,
declaring to a people yet unborn:
He has done it!

Psalm 22

I love the psalms because you find in them not some finger snapping easy answers. They’re real and true to life. Yes, this is fulfilled in Christ, but still it spoke in some true way of the experience of the psalmist and to our experience as well. We won’t find the faith and help God wants to give us apart from going through real life, not ducking the hard questions, and not trying to escape. Instead we must look to God in faith. And these words of the psalms along with the rest of Scripture can help us immensely. In and through Jesus.

little by little over time

They will be called oaks of righteousness,
a planting of the Lord
for the display of his splendor.

Isaiah 61:3b

Oak trees are among the most sturdy and long lasting trees, it seems. But they don’t grow quickly. The kind of growth required for the tree it is takes time.

In Isaiah, people are likened to oaks, those God is “planting.” When you read Scripture and consider the spiritual life, all of this takes time. Christian spiritual maturity is not arrived to overnight. Nor does some overwhelming experience add up to Christian maturity. In fact that can easily lend itself to deception, someone thinking they’ve arrived when they haven’t, or couldn’t. We need the young saplings, exuberant in their new life, glowing in their witness of that. But it will take time, wind, storms, sunshine and rain, and more time for them to grow into the sturdy, mature trees they need to become.

Some of us are pretty full grown, but as Christians we know our growth never ends in this lifetime. We have weathered many a storm, learned to stand firm in the winds with roots embedded in the water of life found in Christ and Scripture. And as part of God’s community, the church. But if we don’t watch out, we could become diseased and in danger of no longer standing. It is sad, the accounts of those who didn’t end their Christian lives well. Sometimes the older trees are not appreciated for all the blessing they give. It’s like, they’ve seen their day, they’re old now and not of much consequence, not to be paid attention to. But we need to keep growing, and in silence and prayer continue to bear fruit from and for God.

Little by little, over time. That’s what it takes. And to keep on doing that come what may. That God might be honored and glorified. In and through Jesus.

our humble, faithful witness

Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.

1 Peter 2:11-12

It is important to be faithful day after day. I did not say perfect, but faithful. None of us is perfect; we’re not going to realize that in this life. But we’re to be faithful, which includes plugging away in what we have to do every day and doing so in a way that is a witness to those around us. That will include repentance on our part along the way, and growth in grace, as we seek to love others because of God’s love for us, and our love for God in return, in Christ.

I have found this to be powerfully and wonderfully true in my own experience. God can work wonders even through us, in spite of and perhaps even through our imperfection, but honest attempt to remain faithful. We want to be pleasing to God and a blessing to others. That is our goal. And God will help us as we continue on day after day. In and through Jesus.

one step at a time

It seems like many want something like an instant spirituality, or great leaps into a new experience which completely changes everything or more like one’s experience of everything.

The Bible certainly doesn’t exclude spiritual breakthroughs like Saul/Paul’s Damascus Road experience. But one will find out after a season of being on the mountaintop, that most of life is lived out in the valley. One will have to learn to walk with God through thick and thin, depending on the Spirit. In and through Jesus.