From the Valley of Tears to Springs of Living Water

As Jewish pilgrims made their way to Jerusalem to worship Yahweh in the temple, they would travel through hard, dry terrain. This journey through the rugged Judean wilderness become illustrative of their spiritual life with God. Psalm 84 is one place where this pilgrimage is poetically captured.

In that psalm, we see worshipers who passed through a valley named “Baca,” which means “tears.” The wilderness was a dry and weary place, a sad place. A place to lament. No one should live there. Or ever want to.

But because the Jews were on a pilgrimage through this wilderness, this place that brought tears became to them “a place of springs.” This sad place was an occasion to look forward to the joy that awaited them when they appeared before God in the temple. Why? You cannot know the true joy of Jerusalem if you have never endured the deep sorrow of Baca.

We, too, are on a journey. Not to a physical temple, but toward a new creation. And doesn’t it feel like Baca? I struggle to literally cry (ask my wife). But I’m learning to mourn the brokenness in the world and in me.

Jesus, of course, leads the way. He has walked through Baca—death itself—so he might be for us Living Water. He is our Place of springs in the wilderness. And one day—I can’t wait for the day—he will bring us to the New Jerusalem where Baca will dry up and the river of the water of life will flow forever.


Blessed Are Those Who Mourn 2017

If you’ve paid close attention, the last few posts here have been related to lament. That’s mostly because I gave a seminar (earlier today) on that topic at our Cru Winter Conference in Denver.

Another reason—for the recent posts and my interest in giving the seminar—is that much of this past year was lamentable for us. Our family lost much. Of course, with loss comes unique opportunity for gain. And we have gained. But make no mistake, the losses are real. And they hurt.

As I type this, I’m sitting on the fourth floor of the Hyatt Regency in downtown Denver. Fifteenth Street is lined with headlights. Oddly dressed co-eds are pouring into the Convention Center ready to drink a cup (or two) of kindness and cheer. Most, of course, while enjoying the last hours of 2017 are wishing, hoping, longing, that 2018 will be just a bit better.

Perhaps you are, too.

Why? Christian or not, you realize this world is broken. You know, deep down, you are broken. No matter what you encountered in the past year, I’m willing to bet you have reason to mourn something. Unfortunately, turning the clock over to 2018 doesn’t remove the losses and hurts you’ve experienced.

For those of us who are Christians, we have a unique way to deal with this. We call it lament. To lament means to pour out our pain and complaint to God, asking him to make things right—because things in this world (and my life) aren’t as I’d like them to be. If you aren’t a Christian, know that God is more than sufficient to handle your complaints. In fact, it’s during the times of loss and lament that great men and women of faith are made.

So we lament, we mourn. Jesus told us as much. He said, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matt. 5:4).

What are we to mourn? My sin—against my wife, my children, my friends, public and private, things done and undone. Sin committed against me—unjust attack or blame, slander, mocking. Affliction that comes from living in a fallen world—cancer, infertility, mental illness, car accidents, hurricanes. Sin and brokenness all around us—abuse, war, racial inequity, famine, genocide, abortion. The list goes on.

The King of the universe tells me, “Be sad!” because not all is as it should be. Even he wept. One of his names is, gloriously, “The Man of Sorrows.” Chew on that.

And how are we comforted? Not with answers. Among the great cry of complaints in the book of Psalms, the solution is never “Oh! God fixed my situation.” No, he tends to do one better: he shows up. His Presence is the fix. And the response sounds like this, “You are my portion and my cup.” “You alone are my refuge.” “You are my dwelling place.”

Blessed are you who mourn, for you shall be comforted. Not with clever solutions, but with the Presence you most need.

We are guaranteed this Presence, in the midst of all our losses, because Jesus, the one who is God’s Presence, lost the Presence of his Father on the cross. All who trust in Jesus now have God’s presence by his Holy Spirit, whom he has given to live in us. Even when I feel alone amidst loss, I’m not alone.

And, ultimately, we are promised that at the end of history, not the end of a calendar year, Jesus will return to this earth to undo all the sad things, wipe away our tears, and make all things new. On that day, we will see Jesus’ face. We will actually be with him.

In all of my family’s sorrow and losses over the past year, the resounding lesson God is pressing into my soul is this: God’s Presence is enough. If I have him, what else do I need?  He often (always?) strips away everything we long for and love to get us to this point. And it hurts. But the reward is more refreshing than we could have ever imagined.

So here’s to 2018. I’m tempted to hope for something better. Instead, perhaps for the first time, I’m expecting the new year to bring losses and hurts—it’s part of the deal. At the same time, however, I’m expecting a far greater gain: the very Presence of God himself, both now and forevermore.

What about you?


The Pits and Christmas

It’s the pits. The worst, most depressing situation you can imagine. We use it playfully today, exaggerating our circumstance. The saying has lost its luster.

But it was not always so.

Out of the 150 chapters in Psalms, perhaps as many as 65 to 67 of them are laments or what we can call “complaint psalms.” These are songs in which the writer is disoriented because of sin, affliction, sickness, attack, or some other result of the brokenness of the world.

And one of the dominant motifs of these kinds of psalms is “the pit.” No, it’s not a reference to a stinky arm pit. It’s much worse. The poets of the Psalms probably took this image from the passage in Genesis when Joseph’s brothers threw him down a literal pit as they sought to get rid of him. In Psalms, it’s a metaphor describing God’s lack of presence or the feeling that his hesed (steadfast love, lovingkindness, etc.) has failed.

Hide not your face from me,
lest I be like those who go down to the pit. (Ps. 143:7)

I am counted among those who go down to the pit. (Ps. 88:4)

Be not deaf to me, lest, if you be silent to me,
I become like those who go down to the pit. (Ps. 28:1).

The biblical vision of “the pit” can be a powerful tool for our prayers in the midst of true despair. When your child dies. When your spouse leaves. When you are wrongfully accused. When you are marginalized. When you are mocked for your faith. When you get the news you have cancer.

Truly, the pits. And if we’re honest, most of life in this world is like this.

In the Psalms, it’s interesting that the remedy is almost never a reversal of the dire situation. It may be. But often the situation cannot change. Most often, however, there is a radical gift given by God: a reorientation to the reality that God is actually with us despite appearances. Circumstances remain unchanged. But the psalmists—and we with them–can now say, “Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire beside you” (Ps. 73:25).

In these moments of reorientation back to God, it’s as if we read about and experience ourselves that God, though he doesn’t always bring us out, actually joins us where we are.

And isn’t that what Christmas is all about? Christmas means that God came. He joins us in the pit. Jesus, God-in-the-flesh, took on weak, frail, death-bound flesh. He exposed himself to the harsh realities of a broken world.

But Christmas means even more than that. Jesus did not merely come to sit in the pit with us by becoming a human being. He came to enter the ultimate pit for us on the cross. It was there that he—who is himself the Presence of God—actually lost of the presence of God his Father for you and me. Imagine the horror of this eternal, loving relationship being broken! And for what purpose? So that we might eternally live in the smiling, loving presence of God. Jesus’ resurrection from the pit of death is God’s stamp of guarantee it will happen.

When we experience “the pits” and feel that God has abandoned us, we can quickly realize it’s just that—a feeling. Now, the feeling is real. Oh, is it real! It’s raw. It hurts. It requires lament to get through it (not around it). But make no mistake. God is doing something while we’re in that pit. He’s Immanuel, with us, right there. And he’s drawing us to depend on him alone.

God himself is the prize.  As Michael Card has written, “You didn’t come to fix things, did you? You came to join me.” He’s better than a fixed situation. He’s taking us to resurrection, to himself.

One last thought. For many, Christmastime is the pits. Our Americanized version of Christmas is laden with artificial smiles and romantic comedy solutions. So any measure of sadness in our lives seems abnormal. Why are you sad? It’s Christmas! You can probably think of your own reasons why this year’s family gathering will feel pit-like.

But let us remember that this is precisely the reason Jesus came. “Long lay the world in sin and error pining” says the Christmas carol. Not clapping and guzzling egg nog. He came because we needed it. He came to join us in the pit, endure it with us and for us, and raise us out. One day, he’ll come back again to lift us out finally and and forever into his loving, face-to-face presence. If your Christmas this year is the pits, what a glorious time to recall and hope in this most precious truth.


Wilderness Worship

“Wilderness is still the place of worship.” 

– Michael Card, A Sacred Sorrow

Everything Jeremiah knows and loves is gone. The enemy has come into his city—God’s city–to steal, kill, and destroy. To him, the world is ending.

He mourns the destruction of his nation in the Old Testament book of Lamentations. There, he uses horrific word-pictures to articulate what he sees and to express what he feels. We, particularly North Americans, aren’t used to these graphic laments. They are shocking—God is like a bear lying in wait. Upsetting—God points his arrows at his own people. Even gross—mothers resort to boiling and eating their own children because of famine.

These images are supposed to shock us, upset us, and even gross us out. Jeremiah uses exaggerative words to try to do some justice to this Babylonian invasion. He wants us to feel it. And we do.

By the end of Lamentations, you get the sense everything is wiped out. Absolutely obliterated. Make no mistake, there is carnage and corpses all around. Jeremiah is surrounded. But it’s a desolate kind of surrounded. There’s no refuge. No place to hide. You can see for miles. It’s devoid of life. The great City, now like the wilderness that lies to its east.

Jeremiah’s life has become a wilderness. And his life represents Judah’s very existence. He’s alone and hopeless. So is the nation. But in the middle of his tear-stained poetry, he sings of hope for him and the nation. He turns his attention to the only Refuge left:

The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases,
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
“The LORD is my portion,” says my soul,
“therefore I will hope in him.”

It’s easy for us, when we feel like everything in our life, or even one treasured thing, has been wiped out to flatly say, “Okay. Everything will be fine. God’s got this. He’ll come through.” Of course he will. But what kind of “come through” do you have in mind?

The hope for Jeremiah—and you and me—is God himself, who is our “portion.” It’s this word—portion—which changes everything. It’s like Jeremiah is saying, “The only thing that will get me through the wilderness is Yahweh himself. Nothing else will do. He’s all I got left.”

I find it’s that way for me. What about you? It’s in the wilderness where God exposes our false hopes—whatever they may be. We had been in a vanity fair of material possessions, ministry success, political ideology, a soul mate, organizational influence, family status, social reputation, financial security. At one time shiny and full of promises, now, they’re crushed, rusted over, and wiped out. We’re alone.

At first, it’s grim. The world—our world—is ending. So we kick and scream. God, why? Just like Jeremiah and the other prophets.

But then we weep not mainly because of the carnage around us bad as it is, but because we begin to see our own sin. We desire the fair. There, it’s easier to hide our true selves. There, it’s easier to hide from our true selves. We desire the fair more than we’d like to believe.

But God won’t let his children stay there long. Eventually, he leads us into the wilderness—as he did his own Son. There he reveals there is no hiding place but him. Even more, he reveals that he is our prize, our treasure, our inheritance. He takes us into the wilderness not to exhaust us. Though does it feel exhausting. Rather, it’s to refresh us with himself. Indeed, he must be our refreshment, because he is the only thing, the only One, wholly capable of doing so.


When God Burns Down Your House

Tragedy is a part of living in a broken world. More than a part, it’s inevitable. When tragedy strikes, our first question is, Why? Whether or not we get an answer, we quickly must ask a second, and perhaps even more important question, How do I deal with this?

Think of a tragedy in your life recently. How did you deal with it?

Perhaps you dismissed it, chalked it up to bad luck, stuffed your feelings, or even blamed someone (maybe yourself). Maybe you blamed God. And got angry with him.

Anne Bradstreet’s poem Verses upon the Burning of our House, July 10th, 1666 teaches us how to deal with tragedy and why we experience it. Shockingly, she puts responsibility of the event solely on God. Yet she does so without blaming him or attributing sin to him, much the way Job does in the first two chapters of his story.

Bradstreet can do this because she has the eyes to see two vital realities. First,  Bradstreet sees that all her goods belonged to God anyway and that he could do with them whatever he pleased. In taking away her home and possessions, God did Bradstreet and her family no wrong.

Second, she sees that this tragedy was for a divine purpose: God wanted her to treasure God above everything. Even the comfort and safety of a home. Thus, her poetic prayer is reminiscent of an ancient Scriptural one: “Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (Ps. 73:25-26).

Consider this a prayer of lament. Watch what Bradstreet does, let it teach you, and let it shape the way you respond to tragedy when it comes your way.

Verses upon the Burning of our House, July 10th, 1666

Here Follows Some Verses Upon the Burning 
of Our house, July 10th. 1666. Copied Out of 
a Loose Paper.

In silent night when rest I took,
For sorrow near I did not look,
I wakened was with thund’ring noise
And piteous shrieks of dreadful voice.
That fearful sound of “fire” and “fire,”
Let no man know is my Desire.
I, starting up, the light did spy,
And to my God my heart did cry
To straighten me in my Distress
And not to leave me succourless.
Then, coming out, behold a space
The flame consume my dwelling place.
And when I could no longer look,
I blest His name that gave and took,
That laid my goods now in the dust.
Yea, so it was, and so ‘twas just.
It was his own, it was not mine,
Far be it that I should repine;
He might of all justly bereft
But yet sufficient for us left.
When by the ruins oft I past
My sorrowing eyes aside did cast
And here and there the places spy
Where oft I sate and long did lie.
Here stood that trunk, and there that chest,
There lay that store I counted best.
My pleasant things in ashes lie
And them behold no more shall I.
Under thy roof no guest shall sit,
Nor at thy Table eat a bit.
No pleasant talk shall ‘ere be told
Nor things recounted done of old.
No Candle e’er shall shine in Thee,
Nor bridegroom‘s voice e’er heard shall be.
In silence ever shalt thou lie,
Adieu, Adieu, all’s vanity.
Then straight I ‘gin my heart to chide,
And did thy wealth on earth abide?
Didst fix thy hope on mould’ring dust?
The arm of flesh didst make thy trust?
Raise up thy thoughts above the sky
That dunghill mists away may fly.
Thou hast a house on high erect
Framed by that mighty Architect,
With glory richly furnished,
Stands permanent though this be fled.
It‘s purchased and paid for too
By Him who hath enough to do.
A price so vast as is unknown,
Yet by His gift is made thine own;
There‘s wealth enough, I need no more,
Farewell, my pelf, farewell, my store.
The world no longer let me love,
My hope and treasure lies above.