Friday, December 29, 2006

Hear the Angels Sing

“O ye, beneath life’s crushing lead, whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way, with painful steps and slow!
Look now, for glad and golden hours come swiftly on the wing;
O rest beside the weary road, and hear the angels sing.”

This Christmas season has been a challenging one for me. I seem to run everywhere, and I find it very difficult to discipline myself to rest. It seems that I’ve become so accustomed to high stress in my “normal, every day life” that I think I can’t function without it, and even come to the point of creating stress for myself. I was at this place several weeks ago—too much to do, not enough time, and my plans for fulfilling my checklist overturned at every bend in the road.

I was confronted with the reality of what I was doing, and the Lord quietly spoke again to me the words I most needed to hear: “Sarah, be quiet. Breathe.” Yes, Lord, how do I do that? What does it look like? “The glory of God is man fully alive, and the life of man consists in beholding God.” How is that walked out? The answer again- Breathe.

The next morning, in an effort to walk this out, I got up early, grabbed my camera, and headed outside to shoot some pictures in the dawn light. I was a little bored with my surroundings, didn’t see anything special, when I started shooting a large fir tree in our front yard. I was framing a shot, trying out some of my camera settings when I noticed something adorning the tip of the branch that I was shooting.

A delicate strand of white draped across the bow and cascaded down the next one. I looked closer. A spider had been hard at work all night long going from branch to branch, crossing and retracing her steps. The strands weren’t in the form of a web, but more like garland, or strung lights on a Christmas tree. There was heavy mist the night before, and the web collected tiny water droplets that resembled a sting of pearls gracing the wise bows of that tree. I kept looking. The strands of pearls hung on every brand of that tree, and water droplets trembled at the tips of the branches themselves, looking like diamonds in the early morning light. The contrast between the radiant white of the “jewels” and the rich green of the tree was quite stunning.

This may not seem very important to most people, but in previous years we’ve strung that tree full of lights at Christmas time. I love Christmas trees, and I love lights, and that tree is perfect for lights. It stands about fifteen feet high, perfectly shaped. We didn’t hang any lights outside this year. Our family can’t afford the extra cost on the electric bill, so we decided to skip it.

As I stood there this morning, I realized that God decorated it for me. He strung it with lights and pearls on every branch, and the tips of the bows He hung with diamonds. What else would I see, if I where to stop and look? How else might I experience His goodness, His love, His mercy? In my busyness I miss the chance to listen to the songs of the angels singing His praises. I often mistake it for children’s babble. I miss the light extending from His fingertip straight to my heart. I see instead the dirty windshield and beg for sunglasses. I miss the songs that He sings over me, and the fountains of blessings that He pours out on me. I mistake it for irritations, inconveniences, and difficulties.

The trees become a forest, the obligations an opportunity, and the spider webs strings of pearls when we take a moment to breathe, to “rest beside the weary road, and hear the angels sing.”

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Extreme Encounters | The Audible Pressence of God

The story of Elijah gives a lot of food for thought. Elijah was one of God’s fighters. He was a good guy, with his head straight on his shoulders, a heart burning for God, and the strength of will to follow what his Lord commanded. In an act of obedience, he challenged his king on the very tender and sensitive issue of idol worship, won a mighty victory for God, and watched all of Israel back him up in his fight against the idol-prophets. This was a victory by fire, and God was in that fire.

Shortly after, the Lord restored rain to Israel after a three-year drought with a mighty storm, and God gave Elijah the strength to run faster than the king’s chariot. These where victories by wind, and God was in the wind.

Elijah receives a death-threat from Queen Jezebel, who instigated all of the idol-worship in the first place. In fear for his life, he runs away and hides in the desert, is fed by angels, and travels on to Horeb, the Mountain of God, the place where Moses had his "extreme encounters" with the Maker of the Universe (Ex. 3-4; Deut. 4:9-14). In Exodus 19 when Moses received the Law of God, there where thunders and lightenings and a thick cloud on the mountain and a very loud trumpet blast, and the mountain was wrapped in smoke and trembled greatly. And God was in this earthquake and thunder.

There he came to a cave and lodged in it. And behold, the word of the Lord came to him, and He said to him, "What are you doing here, Elijah?" He said, "I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken Your covenant, thrown down Your alters, and killed Your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away." And He said, "Go out and stand on the mount before the Lord." —1 Kings 19:9-11a

When Elijah went to Mount Horeb, he expected to encounter God. From his past experiences, and from what he knew of the character and person of Jehovah God, he expected the Lord to appear as He had in the past. And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire the sound of a low whisper. Elijah knew the God of fire, and wind, and a great earthquake. Yet God was not in any of these things. Instead, He revealed Himself in the sound of a low whisper, a still small voice, the sound of sheer silence, "the audible presence of God." This was an extreme encounter, one that Elijah was not expecting, was not looking for, and didn’t know how to comprehend. It shocked his reality, and left him changed.

There are many times when I go about looking for a "mountaintop experience" where God reveals Himself to me as He has before. I search for the "supernatural hand of God" to show up in places that I expect— an surprising gift of money in response to a prayer for needed funds; a sudden change of heart in a person who was once antagonistic; a sense of mysterious peace in the midst of a personal storm; a special little gift left on my pillow from a sibling who wronged me and is now repentant. This is not to say that God can’t work through these means. He has often showed Himself to me in the very ways mentioned. But sometimes in my fervent search for God’s working in just such ways, I overlook the fact that He doesn’t always do what I expect.

O my God, I cry by day, but You do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest. Yet You are holy… —Psalm 22:2-3a

God has spoken in His holiness: I will rejoice… —Psalm 60:6

Sometimes the "supernatural hand of God" isn’t the calm in the midst of the storm, but rather the storm itself. My sincerest desire is to come to the point where I recognize my very life as a supernatural work of God, to know God as He is, and never try to create Him where He is not. Sometimes His work surprises His children because we expect God’s hand to look like ours. But our God cannot always be understood. C. S. Lewis writes that, "He’s not a tame lion…" "No," replies Lucy, "but He’s good."

Monday, August 28, 2006

Know Your Chord

I recently went skydiving with a group of friends. For as long as I can remember, I've loved the sky, and I've wanted to fly like Peter Pan through the clouds. When I was growing up, I'd watch the birds fly south for the winter and wish that I could be up there with them. In the summer I'd lie on my back and look at the clouds, and wonder what they would feel like if I could stand on them. The first time I heard a friend mention skydiving I dismissed the thought as absolutely crazy. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I actually wanted do it, not because my friend wanted to, but because I wanted to. Besides, it was the closest thing to flying Peter Pan-style that I'd ever experience in this life.

There's a lot about skydiving that is unique and interesting. First of all, the instructors and owners are a bit different. It takes a special person to make a living by jumping out of planes. We met such characters as "Enzo," a short, energetic guy who drank a Red Bull while getting harnessed up (as if he needed any extra adrenaline!); "Billy Bob," a tall, intense dude who tried to scare all of the girls by making comments like, "Umm, I've never done this before. Where does this strap go?" and "Uh, oh. I forgot the parachute." (the latter as we prepared to exit the plane); "Jenny," our photographer who had done more than 7,000 jumps and works in New Zealand during our the winter season (NZ's summer); a young guy from Europe who could hardly speak English and communicated mostly with grunts, hand motions, and an occasional word thrown in for good measure.

Skydiving is not a huge adrenaline-rush thing, although most people want to go for that reason. The actual jump out of the plane isn't really a jump at all. It's more like somersaulting into a pool without getting wet or feeling the weight of water around you. The freefall is just that- falling straight down at about 130 mph. It doesn't really feel like falling, though. There's no "stomach up in my throat" feeling like that of a rollercoaster, nor is there a "hold on for dear life" feeling like when you're out of control and about to crash. It was more like flying than anything else, a sense of weightlessness, like I was caught in limbo, suspended between earth and sky for the sixty short seconds before I pulled the chord to release the parachute.

Pulling the chord is the most important part of skydiving. If you don't pull the chord, the parachute won't release. If the parachute doesn't release, the skydiver's life is in jeopardy. The chord is important because the parachute is important. Before getting harnessed up and loading into the airplane, each skydiver goes through a period of classroom instruction, detailing the risks involved in skydiving, explaining how the parachute works, talking through the actual jump and the freefall, and answering any questions that we had. First-time skydivers jump "tandem"- harnessed to a dive "buddy"/instructor, and after the class we met to practice body positioning and discuss the jump.

My tandem "buddy" talked me through the exit process and we "practiced" a couple of times. Then he walked me through what to do once we exit the plane. All skydivers wear an altimeter on their wrist to see how high they are. We jumped at 12,500ish feet and the chord is pulled at 5,500. He told me that once we exited the plane to go through a series of checks and then practice pulling the chord. We even did a couple of practice pulls while on the ground, taking my hand and moving it to where to chord would be so I could get the feeling of it. "You need to know where your chord is," he said. "That's the most important thing to remember, which is why we're practicing now, and why you'll practice several times during the freefall. You can't go searching for it once it's time to pull. When you get to 5,500 feet and you're ready to release the parachute, you have to know where your chord is. You don't have time to look for it."

Once we were on the plane, he talked me through the process again, making sure that I remembered how to arch my back for the exit, when to check my altimeter, and where to find my chord. He said, "I'll signal you, then give you about a three second cushion. If you don't pull the chord, I'll do it for you." We exited the plane by kneeling at the doorway, arching as far back as we could, and then sort of tumbling out. We did a couple of head-over-heals turn, then we righted belly down and enjoyed the freefall. Falling as fast as we were, it was too loud to hear anything except the noise of the wind rushing past my ears. I thought that it was probably natural to scream in a situation like that, so I opened my mouth and let it rip for all I was worth. I couldn't hear a thing. I decided that it was stupid to scream if I couldn't hear myself, so I shut my mouth again and looked at the horizon.

Sixty seconds is a very short time to process all of what was going, but I can remember the curve of the earth, the pale blue of the July sky, and the hazy, bluish hue of the ground below me. I remember hearing the rush of the wind, making sure I remembered to breath, stretching out my arms and feeling the might of the force of gravity pulling me downward. Whenever I moved my arms, it was in short, jerky motions because of the strength of the air rushing past me. I remember feeling the change in the air as I entered the ozone layer- the change from a cool, fresh, light and dry air up high to a warm, heavy, humid air closer to the ground.

I did several "practice pulls" on my chord, and knew exactly where to find it when we hit 5,500 feet. I pulled it myself, without even a cue from my instructor, and released the parachute, halting us to what seemed almost like a complete stop compared to the rate of speed we had been falling at. From there, it was a gentle, relaxing ride down to earth. The parachute had two harness handles that allowed us to steer. By pulling on the right handle, we made a neat little turn to the left, and by pulling on the left handle, we turned to the right. Pulling down hard on either side sent us into a corkscrew spin that closely resembled a rollercoaster experience. By pulling down on both handles, we slowed down and eased into a gentle landing. After it was over my instructor teased me a bit because I practiced pulling my chord so many times during the freefall. I didn't care. I told him, "I wanted to be sure that I knew where it. I wanted to pull the chord and release the parachute on my own, and you said that if I didn't do it, you would. I wanted to do it myself. And I did."

I've thought about that experience a lot in the last month, and I think that there is a lot that can be learned from skydiving. The most important thing for a skydiver to have is a reliable parachute that opens on time. Therefore the most important thing for a skydiver to know is where his chord is so that when the time comes to release his parachute, he doesn't have to go looking for it. As my instructor told me, when you hit 5,500 feet and you need to release the parachute, you don't have the time to go searching for your chord's location. You have to already know.

So it is with God and me. The most important thing in the life of a believer is his relationship with God. Therefore the most important thing for a believer to know is Who God is, and who they are in God (their position as a Christian). All other relationships are affected by these, and much of a Christian's success in life is hinged upon his success in these two areas. I must be so secure in my position as a child of God that when temptation comes, or lies fill my mind and doubts heart, there is no doubt in my mind as to Who God is and what my position is as His child. I have to already know. Though everything else in my life appears blurry and uncertain, though I doubt my friends, my family, my motives, and my self, yet I should never doubt my Lord and His identity. Just as a skydiver can't try to locate his chord as he is on his way out the plane door, so a Christian cannot wait until he is in the midst of "adversity" to establish in his mind the truth about His God. You shouldn't have to try to find a firm rock when the tempest is blowing. You should know the position of that firm rock before the storm begins so that you have something to stand on during the storm.

Oswald Chambers on the subject:

"When we are in fear we can do nothing less than pray to God, but Our Lord has a right to expect that those who name His Name should have an understanding confidence in Him. God expects His children to be so confident in Him that in any crisis they are the reliable ones. Our trust is in God up to a certain point, then we go back to the elementary panic prayers of those who do not know God. We get to our wit's end, showing that we have not the slightest confidence in Him and His government of the world; He seems to be asleep, and we see nothing but breakers ahead.
"'O ye of little faith!' What a pang must have shot through the disciples—'Missed it again!' And what a pang will go through us when we suddenly realize that we might have produced downright joy in the heart of Jesus by remaining absolutely confident in Him, no matter what was ahead.
"There are stages in life when there is no storm, no crisis, when we do our human best; it is when a crisis arises that we instantly reveal upon whom we rely. If we have been learning to worship God and to trust Him, the crisis will reveal that we will go to the breaking point and not break in our confidence in Him."

"We imagine we would be all right if a big crisis arose; but the big crisis will only reveal the stuff we are made of, it will not put anything into us. 'If God gives the call, of course I will rise to the occasion.' You will not unless you have risen to the occasion in the workshop, unless you have been the real thing before God there. If you are not doing the thing that lies nearest, because God has engineered it; when the crisis comes instead of being revealed as fit, you will be revealed as unfit. Crises always reveal character.
"The private relationship of worshipping God is the great essential of fitness. The time comes when there is no more "fig-tree" life possible, when it is out into the open, out into the glare and into the work, and you will find yourself of no value there if you have not been worshipping as occasion serves you in your home. Worship aright in your private relationships, then when God sets you free you will be ready, because in the unseen life which no one saw but God you have become perfectly fit, and when the strain comes you can be relied upon by God."

Know where your chord is now, before the crisis comes, so that when it comes time to lean upon your Lord, you know exactly where to find Him. Enjoy your ride.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Of Clouds and Glory

Sometimes I feel so mixed up inside, like I am full of knots that need to be entangled and straightened out. I hate conflict, with all that is in me, and yet inner conflict is not an unusual emotion to experience in my day-to-day encounters with people and situations. My sense of justice and my feelings conflict with each other, and cause me to see things from two different, and often opposing, viewpoints. Such was my state of mind tonight as I left my apartment to head back to work. It is the week before our last ATI Regional Training Conference, and our Department is deliciously busy scouting out and rounding up all the loose details that seem to run around like ants responding the destruction of their home. I twisted my ankle a couple of weeks back and it still reminds me of its tenderness every now and again, so I walked slowly tonight, trying to convince myself of my ability to handle the stress of my work responsibilities in addition to the laundry, house chores, and packing that must take place before I leave for Indianapolis on Sunday.

I stepped off the sidewalk and turned my eyes to the sky, grateful for the breeze and anxious to see a glimpse of celestial beauty to calm my soul. The sight of the clouds brought my steps to a halt and I took a moment to gaze upward and loose myself in the beauty of the evening. I have never seen such amazing cloud artistry. Huge billowy clouds, gently shaped, but with perfectly defined edges filled the northwestern sky and sent little offspring as heralds before their mighty force. One particular cloud caught my attention. Rich and stately in size and demeanor, it swelled up and over itself, overflowing its edges and constantly creating for itself a new dimension. It was pure white, but it appeared to be shadowed by something else. I quietly thanked God for this sight that refreshed my spirit, took off my shoes, and intended to go about my merry little way as planned. Two minutes of sky gazing transformed my soul from a busy, huffy mess to one of a quiet, meditative dreamer.

I rounded the corner and headed down the hill. As I walked on, the arms of the trees parted to reveal a whole choir of clouds even more magnificent than the one I previously observed. These western clouds were a gloriously rich, deep white, tinged with gray from the north, and backlit with pure gold from the heart of the sun. Shafts of light tumbled like rivers and waterfalls over the edges and between columns of the various cloud formations, and I could almost fancy I heard them singing as they traversed the sky from the fingertips of God.

As I walked on, the clouds changed, reshaped, grew in size and intensity. As two clouds parted and light came tumbling through the gap, I almost imagined I could see the entrance to the throne room of the Most High King, and hear Him say, My child, come farther up and further in.

Clouds inspire a sense of exhilaration and desire in me unlike almost any other force of nature. When combined with a fresh and moderately strong breeze, as there was tonight, my mind unwittingly turns God-ward in prayer and in longing. As I pondered the masterpiece tonight, I thought of Moses who spoke with God face to face, as a man speaks with His friend. Moses knew God, communed with God, listened to God, and desired to see God in all His glory, to know Him even more. And God granted His request, and passed before him. MosesÂ’ satisfaction in God was so intense that he remained on the mountaintop with God forty days and nights, neither eating nor drinking. Enoch walked with God, and was no more, for God took him. Walked with God can be translated, he set himself to walk, he was fixedly purposed and determined to live to God (Adam Clarke). As I meditate on the beauty of clouds, my soul longs to know the very depth and length and breadth and height of the love of God, as Moses and Enoch did.

The more I think of the heaven, the more I come to realize that heaven is not pearly gates and streets of gold and freedom from sin, pain, and tears. That is what heaven contains. But that is not what heaven is. Heaven is seeing God face to face, knowing Him fully, and delighting in Him without the constant inner conflict of sin and flesh warring against my thirst for Christ. Heaven is God. The result is glory. I think that is why I take such sheer delight in wind and clouds and stars and the vast expanse of the heavens above. To my soul, these things represent the depth of desire I have to see God without a dim looking glass standing in the way. I do not desire to walk streets of gold. I do not desire to sit down at a wedding feast with billions of people. I do not desire to eat from the tree of life and drink from the crystal river. I desire to know, experience, and delight in my Lord, and to loose myself in the gloriousness of such a thing coming to pass.

"O God, I have tasted Thy goodness, and it has both satisfied me and made me thirsty for more. I am painfully conscious of my need of further grace. I am ashamed of my lack of desire. O God, the Triune God, I want to want Thee; I long to be filled with longing; I thirst to be made more thirsty still. Show me Thy glory, I pray Thee, that so I may know Thee indeed. Begin in mercy a new work of love within me. Say to my soul, Rise up, my love, my fair one, and come away. Then give me grace to rise and follow Thee up from this misty lowland where I have wandered so long." -A. W. Tozer