The Cormorant and the Psalmist

The Cormorant and the Psalmist

I stopped to watch the cormorant dive this morning on my walk around the lake.  This bird fascinates me, and seems to beg for an audience.  He glides, sitting lower into the surface as  his feathers gradually absorb water.  (I’m told he wasn’t given the natural water repellent oils that other water fowl have, so must periodically come to land until his feathers dry else he would literally sink to his death.)   IMG_1766He invites me to play a guessing game: “Where Will I Come Up?”.  Head down, perfectly poised with a body designed for it, he dives.  I can’t see the bottom, I can’t see where he goes.  But he’s down there swimming in that dark and murky lake.  He knows what he’s doing and he’s about his business of doing it.  He’ll resurface when he’s ready, but where is anybody’s guess.  I wait.  I watch, my eyes darting back and forth to the right, to the left, out further, closer in, trying to predict where he’ll emerge.  It seems to take forever.  Did I miss him? Suddenly, as gracefully as he disappeared beneath the surface, his head pops up way over on the west side of the lake.  My patience is rewarded. I smile, congratulating myself for looking in the right direction, and move on.  But my mind stays on that bird.  I ponder the deep.

I waited patiently for the Lord.

When will you come?  Where will you show up?  How can you ever make this right?  Should I abandon my Lord just because he has not performed the way I had expected him to?  I question his goodness.  I am seeing a “side” of him that I hadn’t known before, and it frightens me.  But where else would I go?  So I wait.  My soul takes a seat, folds its hands, and waits for Jesus.  I have no words except “HELP!!  HELP!!  I’m going down!”

And He inclined to me, and heard my cry.

But how does that save me?  It’s dark.  I can’t see into the next 15 minutes, let alone the long years ahead shadowed by this incomprehensible loss.  Fragments of frantic thought grasp for a solid foothold.   The eyes of my soul dart here and there, looking for light.   An overwhelmed heart.  A mind in anguish.  Tears that won’t stop.  So what if God does hear?  He can’t undo what’s been done.

He also brought me up out of a horrible pit, out of the miry clay, and set my feet upon a rock and established my steps.

Yucky, dark, slimy, bottomless ooze.  I fear swimming where I can’t see the bottom, and in lakes where organic matter wraps itself around my ankles.  I want to see.  I want to know what’s there.    I want solid, visible ground under my feet.  The Indian Ocean, off the coast of northern Mozambique, is my favorite place to swim.  The water is clear the whole way down.  I can see my feet as they pad across the firm, wet sand.  The dangers are clearly visible and deftly avoided.  

I still don’t know the answers.  Grief still looms.  I immerse myself in His word, and so He has quieted my soul with grander thoughts of his ways, a broader understanding of his mercy, his grace, his holiness … my depravity and the brokenness of us all.  His character is the solid rock on which he has set my feet.  I don’t understand God.  But I know him better.  I trust his terrible goodness.  There is strength in his mercy, an awful perfection in his judgements, and a glorious purpose in it all, yet to be unveiled.   

We need a God who sees where we don’t see; a God whose purposes stretch into eternity, where our minds collapse at such ponderings.  This God, the One revealed to us in the holy Scriptures, is the only god worth fearing, loving and waiting on.

He has put a new song in my mouth – Praise to our God.  Many will see it and fear, and will trust in the Lord.

I’m waiting on my Rescuer for that new song, and to see what He will do with it.  But I will watch and be patient for His time.  There are gifts of His grace that are only bestowed on those who walk through the valley of death.  Walk, don’t run.  I will cherish these gifts in my heart and, when I have voice, broadcast them to all who will hear.

I would never willingly go where the cormorant goes.  But when His hand of Providence takes me there, the Rescuer goes with me.

Psalm 40

“His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him who called us to His own glory and excellence…”  II Peter 1:3

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What To Wear

What To Wear

“You look like you’re ready to lead worship”, said my husband as I stood before him in leggings and a long sweater.

“Mom, do you think I could choose a wife on the basis of the swimsuit she wears?” asked my son, in all seriousness.

“All ordained clergy are invited to join in the procession … [and] should wear attire appropriate to their tradition.” – a footnote on the invitation we received to an ordination service.

What do the above accounts have in common? They all show that we attribute meaning to what people wear. I’m not going to speculate, in this space, what women are saying by what they wear on the platform or at the pool. On the other hand, a clergyman’s robe and stole absolutely identify him with a certain tradition. His statement is obvious.

God understands more than we do that the thing we put on identifies us with a tradition, a culture, a belief. God, right from the beginning, used the garment motif to communicate redemption. He did not accept the green, leafy clothes Adam and Eve made to cover their nakedness. These clothes offended God and said to Him: “We did exactly what You told us not to do and now we’re trying to cover up and to hide our sin against You. We are full of shame. Our new clothes should make us feel better about ourselves and keep the truth from You.” But God saw through their flimsy leaves, right into their souls. Their workmanship did not cover their sin, nor their guilt, nor their shame.

Don’t we still try to cover ourselves in our own workmanship? Don’t we think of ourselves as basically lovable, good and deserving of God’s good will? Do we believe we can make our own plan and “get to God” on our own?

She was barely three years old. Perching on the curb, I told her to take my hand to cross. “I don’t want to hold your hand”, she stated. “Very well. If not my hand, you must at least hold someone’s hand to cross this street”, I insisted. She pondered for hardly an instant. Then she clasped her left hand in her right hand, held them out in front of her and announced: “I will hold my own hand.” And so doing, she marched across the street alone. Fortunately, she arrived safely on the other side. However, we will not arrive safely on the other side of death, nor be welcomed to eternity in God’s kingdom if our view has been: “I’ll do it myself. I have a plan.”

God’s gospel work began in Genesis 3:21 when He Himself covered the rebels with garments of His own making, having rejected their efforts. And then, Christ * shed His blood as our cover. So those who bow before Him, denying their own goodness in order to receive Christ’s covering, will be robed in His righteousness. If we aren’t wearing this, we aren’t wearing anything.

“I will greatly rejoice in the Lord; my soul shall exult in my God, for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation; he has covered me with the robe of righteousness.” Isaiah 61:10

Will God recognize the robe you’re wearing as you stand before Him on that final day? Or will you appear before Him in garments of your own making, flimsy wisps of nothingness? Will the Righteous Judge look at you or me and say what the truth-speaking child cried out when their Emperor marched past the crowd in his new clothes: “But he doesn’t have anything on!”

A well-known theologian puts it like this: The question is not “Do you know Jesus?”, but rather, “Does He know you?” Are you clothing yourself with garments made from your own pattern? A custom-fit life of your own invention? If so, He won’t recognize you as His. He only receives those who are wearing His perfect robe of righteousness thrown over them solely and explicitly because of what Christ has done! God will recognize me because, no question, He knows that robe! Hallelujah!

There is a song I love about this robe:

I am covered over with the robe of righteousness that Jesus gives to me, gives to me,
I am covered over with the precious blood of Jesus and He lives in me, lives in me.
What a joy it is to know my heavenly Father loves me so,
He gives to me, my Jesus.
When He looks at me He sees not what I used to be, but He sees — Jesus.

Does Jesus know you? What clothes do you trust in to cover you, to identify you as God’s child? What are you wearing?

*link to Statement of Christology in Portuguese

 

Holding On

Holding On

Some of you dear servants of Christ have just put your son or daughter on a plane, to fly to a boarding school far away. You won’t see them for three months. You will repeat this two more times this year: first, the giddy anticipation of their arrival and straining for your first glimpse of them coming down the exit ramp. Few joys compare!

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.

Secondly, the unfolding joys of being together again. Please, please lay aside a few of your “ministry” appointments for this short month. Revel in your mothering ministry. You won’t regret time spent diffusing the light of the gospel to the disciples you birthed.

Then there’s the third, and necessary strand to make the picture complete: seeing the back of her as she turns to face her future.

 

Holding On

She plays her music.
I quilt and listen
to the chords I hear
one month in four.

I let her music roll around in my heart
Because I know the moment will end –
How long can I cling,
hold on?
Not too long, lest I rob her of joy.

Unbearably hot, this weather.
I prepare iced coffee
which we share together –
a favorite of hers.

Conversation flows happily from serious to hilarious,
My daughter, my friend,
How long can I cling,
hold on?
Just short of “too long” lest she suspect my heart.

We stroll downtown
admiring the latest facelifts in our African city.
She is slender and strong
But I am not too old beside her!

Our feet in step, our hearts growing closer
as she becomes a woman.
How long can I cling,
hold on?
Not too long, lest she be forced to tear herself away.

It’s time.
She, anxious to put the long, bumpy miles behind her.
Me, anxious about the inevitable pain.
We embrace. I snatch at my breath
that escapes in a sob.
How long can I cling to her,
hold on?
Oh, mother, not too long – but long enough
to express what our hearts already know.
My daughter, I must let you slide easily,
Gently from my grasp.

How long can I cling to You,
hold on?

“Oh, daughter, cling to Me,
hold on.
I will never let you go.
You will never turn around to find Me gone.

Blessed are the mothers who let go …
and cling.”

January 3, 1999

 

Oh, don’t forget the rest of the verse. It’s the promise Jesus made to all those who carry His gospel to wherever He sends them – you to your village, your son and daughter to their dorm:

And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.“

“I am with you to bear you up, to plead your cause; with you in all your services, in all your sufferings, to bring you through them with comfort and honor.” Matthew Henry

“I will not leave you or forsake you. I Am, the One with all authority in heaven and earth, your Friend who sticks closer to you than the sweetest relation —will forever hold on to you.

Matthew 28:18-20; Joshua 1:5; Proverbs 18:24

Feasting in the Wilderness

Feasting in the Wilderness

“What keeps you going?”, he asked. It’s a canned question, but meant to give veterans the chance to encourage young missionaries, I suppose. How do I answer that? What remarkable, memorable statement could I utter that would make a lasting impression, maybe even change him forever? My genuine answer, the one my heart immediately trumpeted, was just one very loud word: “Jesus!”. But that’s so expected. I’m a missionary after all, and that’s what you’d expect me to say. How boring. “Jesus, literally, truly, absolutely, keeps me going.” I told him that, not because he expected me to (he didn’t), but because this is one, true thing I know for sure-without-a-doubt.

The sun has set on our Namibia assignment. There was a day, or a week here and there, where I was able to exercise my gifts to teach and encourage others to follow Jesus Christ and know His word. Mostly though, it has been twenty-one months of isolation, of a life un-peopled, of being invisible. So, during our end-of-term review, I had to answer another question posed by my leadership: How has your emotional health been this term? I wrote one word: fragile.

The multiplied hardships that characterize a missionary life, and this assignment in particular, look like a recipe for emotional meltdown. Too often we respond to such a recipe by fighting back, demanding attention, and becoming self-focused. Our soul grows bitter, depressed and rebellious. And I could see it coming. I wasn’t immune.  But meltdown didn’t happen. My soul is healthy!

Most of my needs for friendship, companionship and to be useful (other than within my precious marriage) went unmet month after long month. But my heart danced!  How is that? I am not hardier of character or a “stronger Christian” than other people. A friend once marveled at how I could “just leave my family” for years on end and live far over the ocean. She comforted herself by telling me she supposes I don’t have the same emotions she has so being a missionary comes easy for me. I wanted to punch her, (which is proof that I’m not a “stronger Christian”). It is precisely because of my weakness that Jesus, and only Jesus, is “what keeps me going”. He is my satisfaction, my joy, my salvation, my peace, my Redeemer, my everything.

Jesus. The Holy Spirit took me deeper into the knowledge of Christ through His word. Oh! The depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! [All of the riches of his grace are mine, now, in this situation!] How unsearchable are His judgements. [He, in all His bottomless wisdom, has put me here.] How inscrutable His ways! [Who do I think I am to question His way with me?]

Jesus. God revealed. God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth. [I am humbled before such a matchless Master.]

Jesus. He has loved me with an everlasting love. I am not my own. [I don’t belong to me.] I was bought with a price. [He paid the price for my sin with his own life, his own blood. He bought me back from my old master, sin. So of course He will protect my wobbly faith.] “Therefore, my soul, glorify God!”

Jesus. The Great I AM. He has come to me, seeing me in my rocking boat, and has passed by, in order that I might gaze on His glory. Oh, listen my soul! It’s not that Jesus gets in the boat with me, takes my storm away and says, “It’s ok, we’re good.” He did not get in my boat but has desired to show me his glory. He beckoned me to look long at Him, at His person and identity. And then I was not afraid, or angry, or demanding to be useful. After all, why would I be?

Jesus. The one who I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I have committed unto him against that day. [I have committed the salvation and the preservation of my soul to him. He will keep it. I can stay in my right mind and not give myself up to an attack of doubt or panic.]

Jesus. The one the prophets foretold. The one about whom the Scriptures were written that I might know God and have eternal life. His word is written for our learning, that we through the patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope. [The hope and comfort I need each day is to be found in Christ as I learn about Him in the Bible.]

Jesus. According to His mercy [not my usefulness] He saved me, through the washing of regeneration [I am baptized into Christ, He claims me as His own!] and renewing of the Holy Spirit [every day, he is continually renewing my soul, helping me change my mind and think rightly about him and others, and myself.]

Jesus. He daily blessed me with his presence and spooned into me the knowledge of Him. He fed me with Himself through reading His word, meditating, accepting his correction and repenting.

And so, one by one, the days passed in pondering Christ rather than myself. My fragility became my strength and my joy. I learned not to recoil from the ache in my heart, but let Jesus use it to make me more like Him, that He would be shown as glorious.

Having learned more about the measure of faith I’ve been assigned, I won’t put God to the test by seeking a second assignment that entails such isolation, though! I won’t court trouble. Trials will come without my looking for them.

Back in my home culture, where life is comfortable, I let down my guard. I know from experience that I eventually lose the fragility and my sense of utter dependence on Jesus Christ. This frightens me. I have feasted too much on Him in this wilderness to be satisfied with any less of Him in the “land of plenty”.

Romans 11:33-36; I Corinthians 7:23; II Timothy 1:12; Hebrews 1; Titus 3:5

Resources that help me to bring God’s word to bear on my soul: Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible, Unabridged; John Calvin’s Commentary on Psalms; sermons by Aaron Messner  and daily devotion guide .

A Watcher for the Sojourner

A Watcher for the Sojourner

Reading Psalm 146 today, I thought of you, my friends who know what it is to move back and forth between countries, continents and cultures; who experience a life-style of goodbyes. I think of you, the expert at home decorating with whatever is on hand and accomplishing a sense of place inside of two weeks; you who search out local ingredients and invent tasty, once-in-a-lifetime meals that can’t be duplicated in the next location. I think of you, my missionary friend, my military child, who is ever conscious of the truth that we really are pilgrims here, always living in transit.

“The Lord watches over the sojourners.” Sojourner is defined as a person who is living in a place temporarily. What really grabbed my attention in this Psalm is the fact that the sojourner is mentioned right in there with the special attention the Lord pays to the oppressed, the hungry, the prisoners, the blind [and I think we can say the disabled in general], the depressed in spirit, the widow and the orphan. Take another look at this list and we see those who are left behind in the mainstream of social life. They live in the margins, outside of the daily rhythm of public and domestic life. Does that seem like your life? If living is riding a pony on the merry-go-round, these people are the ones sitting on the bench watching, powerless to jump on. We who spend decades of our lives moving from one temporary place to the next are like those who lope alongside the wheel but don’t ever seem to achieve the stride necessary to leap up onto it. And it certainly isn’t going to stop for us. God knows us, my friend. He knows the trials and temptations unique to our sojourner status. He has not forgotten that we are, after all, dust. Our dust is composed of change, uncertainty and temporal transience, never quite fitting in, a part of our heart always someplace where we aren’t. There are trials and temptations that are peculiar to such dust. We are prone to particular sins and weaknesses. Our Father knows this. He knows our dust. And He has a particular promise for us. He will watch over us.

God our Father watches over the sojourner. To watch is to observe attentively over a period of time. He watches without blinking. He doesn’t watch like a casual observer; waiting to see what will happen, or for his entertainment. He is a Watcher who goes before, removing obstacles we don’t even notice. He guards our back from innumerable spiritual attacks which he knows we aren’t ready to face today. He watches for the pit carved out by the enemy to swallow up our restless soul. He watches as our guard, to protect us from misunderstandings or irreparable cultural faux pas . He watches; he sees what you, and I, don’t because we can never completely understand the culture where we are or the assignment we have. There are too many unknowns in our lives; too many blind spots. He knows the unknowns, sees what we never will and Watches out for us, you and I. He watches with intent – the intent to comfort and preserve our souls.

My friends, if our God works justice for the oppressed, frees prisoners, opens blind eyes, lifts up those who are bowed down, relieves the orphan and the widow, you can be sure that He watches you, a sojourner. And you can be confident that His watching is exactly what you need. Trust yourself to his vision and view of things. Rest your soul today, because God is your Watcher and Preserver.

Travel Tales

Yet another transition is approaching.  Notice the first two syllables of  that noun.  More buses, cars, trains and airports.  I muse on past experiences, and I smile now, even if I wasn’t smiling then.  I invite you to smile along as I recall:

Going through security check at the Frankfurt Airport, the officer pulled Paul aside to empty the contents of his carry-on pack. “Too much electronics”, he stated as he pulled out cords, adapters and various devices. His parting shot was an order, “Tuck in your shirt.”

******

It was our flight to Kenya from Lisbon in ’88. A misunderstanding resulted in our family of 6 running through the terminal to board the plane that sat waiting just for us, the late ones. The other passengers sat quietly, buckled in and ready to taxi, and watched the harried parents herd their bouncing little ones down the aisle and into their proper seats. The parents were trying not to be noticed but gave up that notion when the 5-year old claimed a window seat, took a quick look at the “window sill” and hollered, “Mommy, my window won’t open!”

******

Then there was the morphing bag – a nifty, nylon garment bag that folded in half with a shoulder strap at the fold, to be carried like any other thin bag of 36”x36”x6”. Trouble is, in addition to the 3 or four shirts it was designed to carry, hubby tucked all the other items one might (and even what one might not) transport in a normal “carry-on” piece of luggage. These items naturally sank to the ends of the bag when it was folded and mounted up there in a lumpy pile. The weight stretched the sides taut, giving it an “A” shape, making the bag appear much bigger and fuller than it was. As it hung from his shoulder, it looked like a bag that should have been checked. The officials at the gate always thought so, too. Without fail he would be stopped and questioned. Without fail, my man would quickly demonstrate the bag’s wonderful morphing qualities while we pretended we didn’t know him. (Where was our sense of humor, I ask you?) “See, it just scrunches and changes to accommodate itself to whatever space is available in the overhead bin!” What a marvel. We traveled for years with this morphing marvel, the children and I gradually lagging further and further behind the daddy in airport lines to avoid yet another embarrassment. The kids were grown and gone when Daddy finally retired his carry-on garment bag for something more suitable: a fleecy, florescent orange back pack. I guess that’s so Grandma here doesn’t lose sight of him in a crowded transit lounge.

The Endless One

The Endless One

The book my husband and I are reading aloud reminds me of those times when the kids found themselves indoors, in a room together. You remember.

You hear them “playing” in the next room. They call to one another, you hear the thudding of feet hitting the floor, of something hitting the wall, laughing. The pitch rises, the activity escalates to a frenzy, and you know you better step in before the pointless, foolish, nonsensical horse-play turns foul. This is when we, the mom or dad, step in to give direction to the energy. “Stop what you are doing and pick an activity with a beginning and an end.” [Free parenting tip: this instruction directs the rowdy, uncontrolled children to focus on a direction – a game with parameters and boundaries that doesn’t allow for uncontrolled silliness which often results in the youngest of the bunch getting hurt. “Get out the Lego and build something to display on the supper table as our centerpiece. Play Sardines. Play ‘pretend’ where you each have a specific role. Read a book. Go climb a tree. You discuss it and agree on an activity that has rules.” Believe it or not, the kids actually seem relieved to have authority intervene and put a stop to what they, in their childishness, could no longer control.]

It’s the book that never ends. On our e-reader, we’ve been tapping the right of the screen for over a year and there’s still no end in sight. Thinking it would be good to know more about church history, we bought (real cheap) and downloaded “History of the Christian Church – from the 1st to the 19th Century (All 8 Volumes)”. We have read more detailed discussion than I thought could exist about every pope, every reformer and every friend and enemy of each of them.

We’re in Volume 8, the Reformation. We begin to see similarities between the church of the early 16th century and that of northern Namibia today. We have lively discussions, the two of us, as we compare and contrast the past and present, and pray for our Namibian brethren.

Then one day, I tapped the screen to peel off the next layer of discussion on the Calvinistic system of predestination. My eyes glazed over as I looked with disbelief at some very long, very strange words I had never seen before in all my Christian education. Apparently the actual words used in Scripture are not enough to satisfy us as to God’s purposes. These brilliant minds made up new words in order to expand our maze of wanderings in God’s infinite wisdom. Thorough counter-arguments, agreements, and agreements with exceptions postulated by every known theologian from then, to “now” (“now” meaning 1890, the date of publication!) consume hours of our reading time.

Grownups can meander aimlessly in the endless labyrinth of inquiry into Divine mysteries, just as children’s play can be foolishly endless. We, too, must have our thoughts directed. So God steps into our verbosity and redirects us to approach the subject with reverence and a humble sense of the limitation of our mental capacities.

So then, on the workings of God’s grace, the recipients of it and the “timing” of it’s effective application, I offer some of my favorite quotes from our various readings as some “rules to think by” :

“The difference between the two schools [those 2 interminably long words referred to above] is practically worthless, and only exposes the folly of man’s daring to search the secrets of God’s eternal counsel …” Philip Schaff

“There is a learned ignorance of things which it is neither permitted nor lawful to know, and avidity of knowledge is a species of madness.”  John Calvin

“The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but those things which are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.” Moses

“Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out! ‘For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has become His counselor? Or who has first given to Him and it shall be repaid to him?’” Paul the apostle

Paul himself “humbly sits at the brink and adores the depth.” The angels themselves puzzle over God’s grace and mercy revealed through Jesus Christ and His gospel. (I Peter 1:12)

“We are forbidden curiously to enquire into the secret counsels of God and to determine concerning them. … We are directed and encouraged diligently to enquire into that which God has made known … He has kept back nothing that is profitable for us, but that only which it is good for us to be ignorant of. We ought to acquaint ourselves, and our children too, with the things of God that are revealed. … All our knowledge must be in order to practice, for this is the end of all divine revelation, not to furnish us with curious subjects of speculation and discourse …” Matthew Henry

And, finally, one of my favorite hymns is the prelude and postlude to every read-aloud session, reminding me that “the only way out of the labyrinth is the Ariadne thread of the love of God in Christ, and this is a still greater, but more blessed mystery, which we can adore rather than comprehend”. Schaff

I Know Whom I Have Believed

I know not why God’s wondrous grace to me He has made known,
Nor why unworthy – Christ in love redeemed me for His own.

(chorus)
But I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that He is able
to keep that which I’ve committed unto Him against that day.

I know not how this saving faith to me He did impart,
Nor how believing in His Word wrought peace within my heart.

I know not how the Spirit moves, convincing men of sin,
Revealing Jesus through the Word, creating faith in Him.

I know not what of good or ill may be reserved for me,
Of weary ways or golden days, before His face I see.

I know not when my Lord may come, at night or noonday fair,
Nor if I walk the vale with Him, or meet Him in the air.

————-
Deut. 29:29; Rom. 11:33-36; I Cor . 2:6-12; Ps. 139:6

Photo: Nampula, Mozambique, May 2008