Psalm 50:1-8, 22-23 – The Beauty in Brokenness

The Almighty God, the Lord, speaks;
    he calls to the whole earth from east to west.
God shines from Zion,
    the city perfect in its beauty.

Our God is coming, but not in silence;
    a raging fire is in front of him,
    a furious storm around him.
He calls heaven and earth as witnesses
    to see him judge his people.
He says, “Gather my faithful people to me,
    those who made a covenant with me by offering a sacrifice.”
The heavens proclaim that God is righteous,
    that he himself is judge.

“Listen, my people, and I will speak;
    I will testify against you, Israel.
    I am God, your God.
I do not reprimand you because of your sacrifices
    and the burnt offerings you always bring me….

“Listen to this, you that ignore me,
    or I will destroy you,
    and there will be no one to save you.
Giving thanks is the sacrifice that honors me,
    and I will surely save all who obey me.” (Good News Translation)

In the beginning, all of creation was a vessel filled with divine light. Then, it broke, and the shards of holiness were strewn across the earth. Those broken pieces are all around us. Sometimes, maybe oftentimes, we don’t see them because of our own darkness.

Ever since, the Lord has been on a mission, bending down, carefully looking for the broken shards, finding them, and picking them up. From east to west, God has been gathering together everyone on earth – the broken yet divinely lighted humans.

A major theme throughout the entirety of Holy Scripture is that God is reaching all kinds of people all over the world. Indeed, the Bible is a long unfolding drama of redemption in which the Lord does whatever it takes to restore a fundamentally broken world.

“Kintsugi” (literally, in English, “golden joinery”) is a centuries-old Japanese art form of repairing broken pottery with gold. Instead of rejoining broken ceramic pieces with a clear camouflaged adhesive, the kintsugi technique uses a special lacquer dusted with powdered gold. After restoration, beautiful seams of gold glint in the obvious cracks of the ceramic vessel. This also means that every restored ceramic piece has a unique appearance; no two of them are the same.

The Lord is presently in the divine workshop, putting broken shards of humanity together. And God isn’t trying to hide or disguise the cracks and flaws; it’s just the opposite: God celebrates the artifact by emphasizing it’s fractures and breaks. As it turns out, the restoration which the Lord employs brings the vessel to even greater beauty than it originally enjoyed. It’s the transformation of a new existence from the old.

The deepest yearning in every human soul is to become whole again, to return to their spiritual source, to experience belonging and union with the Beloved.

Amidst the human pain all around us, and within us, we can observe the sacred light, and turn in the direction of beauty. We can hear the call of God to respond with gratitude and thanksgiving, instead of relying upon some physical or monetary sacrifice to suffice our spiritual obligations.

We are here to participate with God in redeeming that which is broken. The sacrificial activity that honors the Lord, and gathers the strewn shards, is a grateful heart with lips that speak thankfulness. Humanity can only see the power of God to save and restore, whenever us jars of clay practice gratitude and obedience to the Lord.

The world’s observation of a perfect vessel is not what draws anyone to faith. Rather, it is seeing an imperfect vessel, put together with a divine glue of gold, the cracks visible and showing for all to notice. Perfectionism is repellent to most folk; it smacks of others attempting to appear something they are not; it’s disingenuous and insincere.

Imperfection, however, speaks of being genuine and real; it brings solidarity with others; it relates and seeks to connect. Observing broken pieces put back together through God’s kintsugi communicates that suffering can be changed into beauty.

Today’s psalm is a reminder for us to stay optimistic when things fall apart and to celebrate the flaws and missteps of life. It teaches us that, when God breaks and destroys, this is not necessarily a mark of judgment. It lets us know that we can be calm when all falls apart. It reminds us that the fragility of humanity is not ugly but beautiful. It reminds us that amidst so much complexity, there is simple beauty all around us, if we will but seek and see.

In a world that has a hard time accepting all the breaks, scars, and imperfections of life, there is a God who is undisturbed by it all. The Lord gently, patiently, and skillfully puts us back together again so that a beautiful transformation of heart and life results.

The Lord 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 12:9-10, NIV)

Grant us, O God, not to be anxious about earthly things but to love things heavenly and, even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall endure; through Christ our Lord, Amen.

Psalm 120 – Gaslighting Trouble

Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer in the 1944 film, “Gaslight”

I’m in trouble. I cry to God,
    desperate for an answer:
“Deliver me from the liars, God!
    They smile so sweetly but lie through their teeth.”

Do you know what’s next, can you see what’s coming,
    all you bold-faced liars?
Pointed arrows and burning coals
    will be your reward.

I’m doomed to live in Meshech,
    cursed with a home in Kedar,
My whole life lived camping
    among quarreling neighbors.
I’m all for peace, but the minute
    I tell them so, they go to war! (The Message)

I wish we lived in a world where people always speak and live the truth in love, without lying, pretense, or posturing. But we don’t. Not everyone embraces a life of encouraging others through truthful affirmation and selfless acts of service.

In reading today’s psalm, I immediately think of all the patients I’ve seen as a chaplain on my behavioral health unit who have been gaslighted.

“Gaslighting” is a recent term, yet the concept is as old as Satan’s interaction with Adam and Eve in the Garden. The word comes from the 1944 movie, “Gaslight,” starring Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman. In the attempt to drive his wife insane, the husband rigs the gaslights of the house so they will flicker at night. Whenever his wife comments on it, her husband flat-out lies and says the lights are not flickering at all. I’ll let you watch the film yourself to see what happens.

A person who “gaslights” uses psychological manipulation to gain and assert control over someone or some group. Gaslighters actively undermine others, using their words against them, plotting nefarious plans for them behind their backs, lying without so much of a blink of an eye, and turning family or friends against someone – all with the insidious agenda of increasing their power over that person and solidifying their dependence from the victim.

All of this gaslighting behavior is done with a smile, said with syrupy words to hook you, rather than help you. That, of course, makes it hard to spot – which is why it is so devilish. If the gaslighter can get you to doubt yourself, your abilities, or your perception of reality, then they can worm themselves into your life and plant their thoughts inside you.

Gaslighters don’t want peace. They want conflict. People at war give them an opportunity to gain more influence and power. Plus, they just plain like to watch others fight amongst themselves. It gives them a sense of control.

Today’s psalm is part of the psalms of ascent – songs used by the community as they walk their pilgrimage to Jerusalem and up the temple mount. The people collectively lament the gaslighting activity of those who oppose and hate them. And they turn to God, who abhors gaslighters, seeking solace and safety from their evil ways.

The gaslighter’s end is certain. They will have to contend with the God who will not be manipulated by anyone. Although it is not our job to punish sinners, it very much is our responsibility to see and avoid gaslighting as much as possible, as well as, God forbid, becoming a gaslighter ourselves. To that end, take note of some of the manipulative marks of gaslighters and patterns of gaslighting:

  • Pitting people against one another. This is done a variety of ways through gossip masked as trying to help, subtle slander, and carefully placed lies.
  • Avoiding responsibility. The gaslighter never owns their words and actions but are experts at blaming others for whatever goes awry.
  • Creating fights and conflicts. Gaslighters chronically avoid the dirty work. They get others riled-up at each other, then sit back and look for an opportunity to seize control over the warring parties.
  • Sucking-up to others. Flattery is a well-worn tool of gaslighters. They are masters at buttering-up people to get what they want.
  • Comparing people. This is just another way of driving a wedge between people. “Why can’t you be like ___?”
  • Mistreating the weak and powerless. The weak have no value for the gaslighter because the powerless have nothing to offer them. So, oppression becomes a means of getting the weak out of the way, like they’re some pesky insect to get rid of.
  • Bragging about accomplishments and stealing other’s. Gaslighters will always take the credit for an accomplishment and then boast about it, all the while badgering the victim.
  • Not keeping promises. Usually there’s a bait and switch where the gaslighter will promise something, then switch the rules or tell a bold-faced lie that they never promised that.

There is much more gaslighting behavior, but you get the drift. The best way to deal with a gaslighter? Get as far away from them as you can, find genuine supportive relationships, and leave them to God.

Today’s psalm can be your prayer to the Lord, offering a heartfelt plea to the Divine Being who does the opposite of gaslighting: strengthening you, giving you power, listening to your voice, and loving you with complete altruistic motives.

Eternal Father, you created us in your own image and likeness, but sin has warped the minds of humanity so that there is much injustice and much carelessness of the rights of other people in this fallen world. I pray you will right every wrong and vindicate those being treated unjustly. Keep us, your people, from trying to take matters into our own hands for vengeance. Give justice and peace to all those who have been cruelly and unfairly treated. May the injustice they have endured be the means to draw them into the saving arms of your grace, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1 – Do Not Lose Heart

It is written: “I believed; therefore, I have spoken.” Since we have that same spirit of faith, we also believe and therefore speak, because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus and present us with you to himself. All this is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God.

Therefore, we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So, we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. (New International Version)

We all face seasons and circumstances that stretch our faith and press the limits of what we can handle.

We have no promise from Scripture we will avoid trouble. 

Instead, Jesus promises his followers there will be adversity and stressful predicaments. 

The pressures of life can sometimes be so overwhelming, we might lapse into losing heart, either by chiding ourselves for the adversity and wishing things were different, or blaming others for our troubles, and believing that if they would just get their act together, all would be well with my soul. 

The ancient Corinthian Church had a bevy of relational issues and problems. Some they created themselves. Some came from other people. Other issues arose simply by living in a fallen world, surrounded by the effects of ever-present sinful crud. 

Yet, no matter the source or nature of the problem, the Corinthians needed a point of focus to direct their troubled hearts. They needed to be reminded of the grace they possessed in Jesus Christ.

Faith is a gift given by God. It is planted in the heart of the believer so that, over time, it will nurture, grow, and bear spiritual fruit. Out of that belief arises speaking words of hope and love that embrace the work of God in the life of the believer. The Apostle Paul said elsewhere to the Roman Church: 

If you openly declare that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is by believing in your heart that you are made right with God, and it is by openly declaring your faith that you are saved. (Romans 10:9-10, NLT)

Christ’s resurrection from death is both a spiritual and a physical reality. If we believe this truth in our hearts, we will be raised both spiritually and physically. Faith in Christ gives shape to the hope that, although we might be experiencing the effects of mortality and the fall of humanity, we are, at the same time, being spiritually renewed day by day. 

The very same afflictions causing our bodies to degenerate and challenging our spirits, are the same means to achieving a glorious, resurrected existence. There cannot be the glory of spiritual and bodily resurrection without a shameful death. Jesus absorbed the shame of the world’s violent ways onto himself so that we might be raised with him. 

However, this does not mean we will never experience difficulty in this present life. In fact, daily spiritual renewal can and does happen through adverse circumstances. There must be suffering before glory, both for Jesus and for us. Deliverance from sin, death, and hell is not an inoculation from trouble. Because it is the troubles of this life which teach us to trust in God, as well as weaning us from everything we previously trusted to deal with those troubles.

“Don’t let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God, and trust in me.”

Jesus (John 14:1, NIV)

So, we need to fix our gaze firmly on the unseen reality of faith and hope. All we see with our physical eyes is temporary. All that is unseen is eternal, especially and namely, God. Therefore, it is imperative we traffic in building heavenly treasure, learning to deal with the intangible and unseen dimensions of life.

We are to allow the physical to serve as a sign and seal of the spiritual realities they represent.

For example, Christians come to the Lord’s Table so that the tangible elements of bread and cup will bolster and fortify our faith with the grace that points to the intangible. The Table is to accomplish for us a spiritual renewal of lifting us up by God’s Spirit and joining us with Jesus. This union with Christ can never be taken away from us, even in death, because we have an eternal building from God which makes this present life look like a camping trip.

When I think of a person who is outwardly wasting away, yet inwardly being renewed, I think of Joni Eareckson Tada. She has been a paraplegic for fifty years, after an accident as a teenager in which she dove into shallow water and broke her neck. Afterwards, lying in a hospital for months unable to move, she had completely lost heart to the point of being suicidal. 

Joni could not even kill herself since she could not physically move. Finally, in her darkest moment, she cried to God with what she says was the most significant prayer she ever prayed: “Lord, if I can’t die, show me how to live.” And God did. Joni’s faith is as strong and robust as anyone’s, despite her infirmity and handicaps. She has learned to embrace her troubles as the means of growing her faith.

The path to accept, cope, and transcend our troubles and afflictions begins with acknowledging them. They only have power over us for ill if we ignore them or put up a false front to hide them. The Apostle Paul was open with the Corinthians about his life: 

We do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, of the affliction we experienced in Asia; for we were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death so that we would rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. (2 Corinthians 1:8-9, NRSV) 

Paul faced whippings, beatings, stoning, shipwreck, hunger, poverty, danger, and trouble, not to mention the stress of caring for fledgling churches. Through it all, Paul was transparent, and named his troubles so he could apply the poultice of God’s grace to his afflictions. 

It is our brokenness – not having it all together – which shows the grace of God to others.

Paul consistently described his life and ministry in apparent paradoxes: strength in weakness; glory through shame; life through death; riches through poverty. 

Although we experience the fallen nature of the world, God bends each situation toward divine purposes so that what seems to be our downfall becomes the means to our spiritual renewal.

Therefore, we do not lose heart. 

Holy Scripture encourages us not to give up because of hardship, since those very same troubles are the divine implements used to form us into solid followers of Jesus.

We need some stress. Just like a violin needing its strings adjusted to the right pressure, God will tune us with the right amount of stress we need to produce beautiful melodious music. God is the musician, and we are the instrument, not the other way around. 

We are to interpret our stress as God tuning us for good purposes. The pressure we experience becomes the means of glorious music in daily spiritual renewal for the life of the world.

Believers are being renewed daily into a valuable work of God. The stress and trouble we experience is very real and sometimes quite hard. Yet, we have the hope God will bend each circumstance for good purposes so that, even though we seem to be wasting away on the outside, on the inside those experiences are renewing us. 

When this present life is over, it is not the end; it is just the beginning.

God Almighty, you reign supreme, including over our stress and pressure in this present life. You have brought us in safety to this day. So, preserve us according to your mighty power, so that we might not fall into sin, nor be overcome by adversity. In all the situations of life, whether good or bad, direct us to the fulfilling of your purposes through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Pentecost: Where We Want to Be, and Where We Are

We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the first-fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope, we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.

In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God. (Romans 8:22-27, NIV)

Pentecostal Groanings

“Pentecost” is the Latin word for “fifty.” Each year, fifty days after Easter, Christians celebrate the Holy Spirit coming upon the early church with power. This Pentecostal energy is not just dynamite with an explosion of spiritual gifts and energizing ministry. Spiritual power certainly is and can be optimistic, positive, and full of faith. 

More than that, Holy Spirit power can also be found in the travails and tribulations we face. It can be discovered in the dark night of the soul, in times of loneliness and doubt, and in the constant need for prayerful intercession. The Spirit is both a mighty wind and a gentle breeze.

The good news of Pentecost is that when we are not powerful, the Spirit helps us in our weakness – that is our hope and our quiet strength. The Apostle Paul used the experience of childbirth to communicate and illustrate what the experience of the Christian life is like. Growth, wonder, expectation, hope, patience, pain, and joy are all words to describe pregnancy and childbirth. 

Pentecostal Prayer

When it comes to the Church and the Christian life, believers are in the gestation period. Our salvation has not yet come to full term. Meanwhile, we must remain encouraged and healthy, keeping our future hope always in front of us so that we will not lose heart. When we are limited in what we can do, we pray. When we are flat on our backs, overwhelmed with our circumstances, we may not be able to utter any words in prayer.

My dear wife and I know something about pregnancy and prayer. We did not know, twenty-six years ago, whether we would have our third child, or not. Our lives were turned upside-down for nearly four months, as we did everything possible to deal with an overwhelming situation, not knowing if our little peanut of a daughter was going to live or die in the womb.

Pentecostal Patience

We had to wait. We had to force patience on ourselves. It really was a life and death situation. As Christians, we are waiting for our complete redemption. If we are not patient and do not focus on our hope, we will not make it. 

To be sure, in difficult times it does no good to be like Eeyore and feel sorry for ourselves. Yet, on the other hand, it equally does no one any good to always be smiling, positive, and upbeat as if nothing is worth grieving over. To take such a posture toward the awful challenges of life is to, at best, ignore the power of lament, and, at worst, live in abject denial about what our true situation really is with all its weakness and inability to control most of what is going on.

In the teeth of adverse circumstances, enter God in the person of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit resides with us and strengthens us with Pentecostal power. So, on this Day of Pentecost, we not only celebrate the Spirit’s mighty power to blow a violent wind and upturn history; we also proclaim and praise the Spirit’s power to come alongside and provide the deep inner strength necessary to fortify us for all we must face.

Pentecostal Awkwardness

We cannot run away from what God has put in front of us. We live in an awkward time of spiritual pregnancy in which we possess salvation but do not yet possess it in all its fullness. There is so much groaning going on because we realize there is such a large gap between where we are and where we want to be.  If women could have babies without nine months of struggle, limitation, and pain, I think they would opt for that instead of the way it is now (I know I would!).

All of creation groans because where it is now and where it will be seems like such a long time in coming.  Every creature and all living things are presently experiencing decay and death. The earth is not yet redeemed from its cursed bondage. So, the planet convulses and contracts with natural disasters and diseases because we live in a fallen world that is not yet redeemed.

People groan because they fall victim to circumstances beyond their control. We also groan because of our own poor choices which grieve us. Although we have been delivered from sin, death, and hell, and experience spiritual power, we still must wait eagerly for the redemption of our bodies. 

We are keenly aware of the terrible disconnect between where we are as people and where we want to be. It feels like Pinocchio, who is not yet a real boy, and must deal with strings and other puppeteers who don’t care about him, who feels the need to lie because of his situation and pays the consequences of his nose growing.

But we are not left to fend for ourselves. Because the Spirit groans on our behalf, uttering prayerful sounds that words cannot express. The Spirit helps us in our weakness, in our pregnant state of discomfort and wondering. 

The Holy Spirit is an expert on knowing our concerns, knowing God’s will, and bringing the two in harmony with each other.

Mit Tdrahrhe

Pentecostal Hope

So, we focus on hope – the confident expectation we will not always be in this position. In the meantime, we learn to enjoy the process of growing in the Lord and discovering the ways of Jesus. We learn to slow down to listen to the gentle voice and the refreshing breeze of the Spirit. During this interim time, this gestation period, we develop new rhythms of life, moving back-and-forth between rejoicing and groaning; praising and grieving; hoping and lamenting; believing and doubting – all with agonizing patience.

Living patiently and hopefully in the Christian life will be worth it all when we see Jesus. We must walk through the valley; yet we never do it alone – God’s presence is with us in the personal provision of the Holy Spirit.

Do not give up in prayer. Even if you do not know what to say or cannot even speak, you can groan because the Spirit will pick up those groans and groan them in the ear of our gracious heavenly Father. The Holy Spirit stands in the gap between where we are and where we need to be. The Spirit intercedes for us, bridging that wide chasm, and bringing us practical deliverance from our impatience.

One of the oldest definitions of prayer is this: Lifting mind and heart to God. Too often in our efforts to pray formally, we fail to truly lift our hearts and minds to God. That’s because what is really in our hearts and minds is not something we generally connect with prayer, at all. Our frustrations, bitterness, jealousies, lusts, curses, sloth, and quiet despair are sometimes understood to be the opposite of prayer, as if they are things overcome so that we can pray.

Pentecostal Power

However, something deeper is happening within: Our frustrations, longings, lusts, jealousies, and escapist daydreams, the things we are fearful and ashamed to name in prayer, are in fact already lifting our hearts and minds to God in more honest ways than we ever do consciously.

If you are carrying a heavy burden, take the light yoke of Jesus and offload your worries to the Holy Spirit who is waiting to intercede for you. And if there is no immediate relief, persevere in prayer without giving up. Pentecostal power is available, but it is not cheap; it will cost us time in prayer as well as patience for the Spirit to work on our behalf. For the Christian life is a lifelong process of becoming.

Come, Holy Spirit, fill our hearts. Kindle within us the fire of your love. Send the gentle breeze of your Spirit, and we shall be renewed into patient people, growing in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. Spirit of the living God, we invite you to wring the death out of our hearts and saturate our souls with your breath and life.  Hoping against all hope we lay defeat aside. We grab for the corner of your cloak and wait for a miracle. Amen.

*Above artwork by Rebecca Brogan