Love Lifted Me

I love you, Lord, my strength.
The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer;
    my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge,
    my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.
I called to the Lord, who is worthy of praise,
    and I have been saved from my enemies.
The cords of death entangled me;
    the torrents of destruction overwhelmed me.
The cords of the grave coiled around me;
    the snares of death confronted me.
In my distress I called to the Lord;
    I cried to my God for help.
From his temple he heard my voice;
    my cry came before him, into his ears.
The earth trembled and quaked,
    and the foundations of the mountains shook;
    they trembled because he was angry.
Smoke rose from his nostrils;
    consuming fire came from his mouth,
    burning coals blazed out of it.
He parted the heavens and came down;
    dark clouds were under his feet.
10 He mounted the cherubim and flew;
    he soared on the wings of the wind.
11 He made darkness his covering, his canopy around him—
    the dark rain clouds of the sky.
12 Out of the brightness of his presence clouds advanced,
    with hailstones and bolts of lightning.
13 The Lord thundered from heaven;
    the voice of the Most High resounded.
14 He shot his arrows and scattered the enemy,
    with great bolts of lightning he routed them.
15 The valleys of the sea were exposed
    and the foundations of the earth laid bare
at your rebuke, Lord,
    at the blast of breath from your nostrils.
16 He reached down from on high and took hold of me;
    he drew me out of deep waters.
17 He rescued me from my powerful enemy,
    from my foes, who were too strong for me.
18 They confronted me in the day of my disaster,
    but the Lord was my support.
19 He brought me out into a spacious place;
    he rescued me because he delighted in me
.

Psalm 18:1-19 NIV (taken from biblegateway.com)
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I grew up hearing hymns– lots of them. My mother and grandmother and aunt all played the piano or organ for church, and often practiced during the week. My father led the congregational singing sometimes, and my grandfather taught himself to play many musical instruments, and used hymns to become familiar with the chords, notes, and fingerings of the instrument du jour. The congregation at our small church sang with more gusto than musical talent, but we sang during the Sunday morning service, the Sunday evening service, the Wednesday evening service, and at any special occasion.

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Two things happened as a result of this: one not-so-good, and one very good thing. The not-so-good thing was that I became somewhat inured to the songs and lyrics– I knew what the songs said, but I didn’t really understand or internalize the truths they contained. However, the very good thing was that the hymns stuck in my memory– years later they came back like the best of friends to comfort me, challenge me, and remind me of sacred realities in the midst of mundane frustrations and worldly confusions.

This old hymn, neglected, out-dated, and seldom sung in our current services, was my lullaby growing up. My mother would sing it over and over as she rocked me to sleep, often running out of verses and words and just humming or filling in with “la, la la, la,” until she reached the chorus.
“Love lifted me. Love lifted me. When nothing else could help, Love lifted me.”

As a young child, I experienced the loving arms of my dear mother lifting me to her lap and rocking me for what seemed like hours until I drifted off to sleep. As a teen, I scoffed at the lyrics a bit–what need had I to be lifted and helped, when I was invincible and young and ready to conquer the world. As an adult, this old hymn came back with power and comfort when my own efforts and life’s stormy circumstances left me with little hope and lots of confusion, doubt, and regret. It reminds me that help and hope can be found even in the raging storms of grief, depression, oppression, and pain. “When nothing else could help…” God could, and did! He can and will!

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“Love lifted me”–such a simple phrase, and by itself not a solid foundation for hope and victory. In fact, there are many popular songs that speak of love lifting a person up, making one feel buoyant and hopeful, joyful or young. But this song speaks of a different and everlasting, all-powerful love– the Love of Christ. And it doesn’t just lift us up from one pleasant place to another. It reaches down into the depths of sin, despair, and even death to lift us up beyond all hope, beyond any strength or effort we could generate or receive from any other source. And this great Love reaches down to lift me–even me! It does not belong only to the elite, the wealthy, the beautiful people, the gifted or the powerful. In fact, this love is especially close and available to those who have done nothing to deserve it; those who have been bypassed and ignored and left to drown in their own shame and sorrow.

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Love. Lifted. Me! My prayer is that this same Love will surround you today, lifting you up, and helping you, just as it helps me and brings me life and hope, to the Glory of Christ our Savior.

The Truth Hurts

“I have told you all this so that you may have peace in me. Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world.” John 16:33

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=John+16%3A33&version=NLT

One of my favorite movies is “The Princess Bride.” The title character begins the story as a young, beautiful, wealthy, and spoiled young woman. She falls in love with the young farm boy who works for her father. The young man leaves to make his fortune, but word comes that he has been captured and killed by pirates. In utter despair, the young woman allows herself to become engaged to a spoiled and wicked prince. She has allowed her grief to consume her, and she cares nothing for the prince, his wealth or power, or even her own future. Before she can be married to the prince, she is kidnapped by villains, and “rescued” by a mysterious pirate. Instead of being grateful, she curses the pirate, telling him that he could never understand her great loss and pain. His answer, harsh, glib, but to the point, is to say that “life is pain, Princess. Anyone who tells you differently is selling something.”

There are certain truths in life that we would avoid if we could– death, pain, sorrow, grief, suffering, and Sin–we don’t want to hear the harsh reality of our situation. We don’t want to suffer or hurt at all; much less to discover that our suffering is commonplace or universal. Everyone will taste death; everyone will face pain and grief and suffering in this life. Everyone will suffer as a result of Sin– our individual actions have consequences, as do the cumulative actions of our culture, our ancestors, and the entire human race. This is a harsh truth, but it IS the truth.

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There are four common techniques we tend to use to avoid facing harsh truths– denial or avoidance, anger, bargaining, and depression or despair. Many people know these terms from the Kubler-Ross studies on patients with terminal illnesses and the five “stages” she identified as they came to terms with their impending death. https://psychcentral.com/lib/the-5-stages-of-loss-and-grief/ The fifth “stage” was acceptance. The five stages have been applied commonly to other forms of grieving and loss, including the loss of a loved one or the break-up of a marriage. While most of us go through some or all of these stages when we face suffering, we don’t all go through them the same way or even in the same order.

Many of us live in avoidance and denial– rushing headlong into meaningless pleasure, self-medicating with alcohol or drugs, staying busy with the pursuit of wealth or power. Others wrap themselves in anger– blaming everyone else for their pain, seeking revenge, driving away those who want to help. Still others try to bargain– seeking to avoid death by trying every new diet or fitness routine, or trying to be righteous enough to earn a supernatural blessing or “good karma.” And many wallow in depression and despair, lost in the swamp and mist, sinking into a pit of their own feelings.

These reactions are normal and human. Harsh truths hurt– they shock us, overwhelm us, shatter our trust, even shake our faith. But they ARE true. What is also true is that God has not left us without resources, even for the harshest realities we face. Even when we are in despair, or angry, or in denial, God can give us peace and strength to go on.

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God isn’t “selling something” to make the pain go away or make our life “trouble-proof.”  Jesus never offered a comfortable life to His followers. In fact, He promised that our lives would be filled with trouble and pain and sorrow!  Christians who claim that they never face fear, or failure, fury or frustration, loss and sorrow– they are “selling” a false gospel.  Jesus faced and conquered death on a cross! He could have avoided it– He could have been angry at those who betrayed Him–He could have stayed buried in despair and failure.  But He arose! We don’t worship someone who has never wept, or faced betrayal or loss. Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life (John 14:6)– if anyone knows the harsh truth, it is the one who IS Truth!  And this Truth hurts– He hurts to see us grieving; He hurts when we reject Him to go our own way; He hurts even as He allows us to hurt.

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Faith, prayer, worship, promises– these are not God’s way of helping us escape the reality of harsh truths.  They are His tools for helping us to overcome and be victorious in the face of trials and setbacks, grief and pain, even death!  As Princess Buttercup discovers in “The Princess Bride”– “Death cannot stop true love!” And it cannot stop the Truth that IS Love!

Lions, Darius, and Prayers… Oh My!

The Biblical figure of Daniel is mostly remembered for being thrown into a den of lions as a punishment for praying to the God of Heaven in defiance of a new law (proposed by his enemies, who hoped to set him up). https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Daniel+6&version=NIV The story is a familiar one– so familiar that we sometimes pass over the context and details. I don’t want to retell the entire story, but I want to put it in context. There is a lot more than just a den of lions and a miraculous rescue.

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First, the Book of Daniel is filled with loosely tied stories in the life of Daniel, an Israelite captured by the Babylonians, and living in exile over the course of over seventy years. By the time we get to chapter six, Daniel is likely in his late eighties or early nineties! He has served under at least five monarchs in two empires, and has seen the utter collapse of two major capital cities (Jerusalem and Babylon). Because of the episodic nature of the first half of this book, we have very few details of Daniel’s everyday life– we never learn if he was married or had children; if he was ever allowed to return to the land of Judah; or if he was able to use his position and influence to help other Jewish families or speak out against the idol worship and human sacrifice practiced by his captors. In the story of Belshazzar, it seems that Daniel had been relegated to a lower position within the palace during the years after Nebuchadnezzar’s death– Belshazzar did not know of him; only because the Queen remembered his ability to interpret dreams was Daniel summoned and brought back to court. The events of chapter six are unique and shocking to us, but not in the context of Daniel’s life.

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There is a pattern that gets repeated throughout Daniel’s story– it is the confrontation of two great powers– Daniel’s faithful service to God puts him in opposition to the powers of his captors. He is a captive and a foreigner, but that is not what makes him (and his three friends) a target of powerful enemies. It is his prayer life and his obedient devotion to God that causes him to be singled out. In seven decades, that devotion has never wavered, and Daniel’s life of prayer has been consistent, both in private and in public. Daniel doesn’t have to argue, protest, or announce his devotion. When he is praised for his abilities, he quietly gives the glory and credit to God. When he is vilified and betrayed, he quietly waits for his vindication to come from the God he has trusted through the years.

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Darius, (like Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar and others before him) is impressed by Daniel– enough that he appoints Daniel to a position of great power and authority within the kingdom. Daniel, because of his humility and integrity, is not threat to the rule of Darius–but he does pose a threat to those under him who are hungry for power and prestige. There will always be people in this world who will try to destroy what they do not understand or respect. Darius is not the author of Daniel’s dilemma, but a tool in the hands of corrupt officials. Daniel could have been hurt, enraged, or defeated by this decree from Darius– but he recognized that the real enemy wasn’t Darius, or the crooked satraps who put him up to it (or the hungry lions he faced)– the real enemy was the opposition to Almighty God and the refusal to acknowledge His authority. Darius is quick to learn that God’s power is real and absolute, and that God is gracious in his power, and loving toward his servants. The wicked satraps did not learn this lesson, and they perished.

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Notice that, just as in the story of the fiery furnace, God did not remove the danger. Daniel’s friends had to go into the fiery furnace…Daniel had to go into the den of lions. And these were not just overgrown kittens. They would have been captive lions– just as Daniel was held in captivity! They were trapped in this den, unable to hunt for their food; dependent on the whims of their captors. They were kept in a state of uncertainty, fear, and hunger. They were desperate, and hurt, and angry. When Daniel is brought out of the den, and Darius orders the conspirators to be thrown in (with their families), the lions pounce with terrifying ferocity, not even letting the bodies hit the bottom of the den! God may allow us to face some terrifying “lions”– scoffers and rebels and desperate people who will try to take their anger and hurt out on us. Will we trust that God can stop their mouths while we wait for deliverance?

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Daniel’s calm response to this entrapment was not the result of Daniel being “holier” than someone else, or more clever; God did not send him a vision of assurance that he would live to see another day. Daniel must have been terrified of facing several starving lions! At his age, he would not have had the strength to fight them. But Daniel’s obedience and trust won the respect of yet another ruler from a very different culture. And God’s miraculous rescue won the awe of Darius– so much so that he issued a decree throughout his realm to all peoples of every language in the kingdom to fear and tremble before the God of Daniel! Faithfulness, humility, and obedience always open up opportunities for God to display His Glory.

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Just as Daniel was thrown alone into a lion’s den and sealed inside by a large stone, one day Jesus would be thrown into a tomb to face death and hell. He was sealed in with a large stone, but no one came to his rescue. He stood and faced our enemies– Sin and Death. His flesh was torn and crushed and His blood poured out, and He bore the wrath and punishment that we deserved, so that Sin and Death were defeated. And when He was finished, the stone was removed, and Jesus emerged victorious! His faithfulness, humility, and obedience let to Glory and Life. We may never face a literal den of lions– we may not be tested with persecution, but Jesus has already won the battle; He has permanently closed the mouth of our greatest enemy, and set us free!

Daniel’s prayer life is not marked by spectacular prayers of rhetorical magnificence. He isn’t known for fervent fasting and wailing prayers for the rescue of his nation (though he probably said many). Daniel is noted for his consistent practice of praying– good days, bad days; days of glory or ignominy; days of ease and days of uncertainty; days spent serving wise rulers, and days spent serving madmen and spoiled brats– Daniel quietly and faithfully went to God in prayer. He didn’t make a public spectacle, but he didn’t hide, either. Will we be faithful to seek God’s face throughout the day– in little matters and times of crisis; in praise and in pain; for our daily bread, our neighbor’s health, our nations’ revival, and our world’s salvation and healing?

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O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

During this season of Advent, we often sing this ancient hymn.  It dates back nearly 900 years, and continues to be sung and/chanted in Latin.  https://hymnary.org/text/o_come_o_come_emmanuel_and_ransom

The hymn is a contrast of weary longing and hopeful prophecy.  The promised Messiah has not yet arrived, but his coming is sure, and cause for great rejoicing.

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The hymn is also a prayer– pleading for the coming of Messiah, even as it comforts with the reminder that he WILL come.  And it reminds us of the power of prayer– not just the power of approaching Almighty God, but the power of acknowledging our longings, our needs, and our dependence on God.  Even in our darkest hours, even in captivity and oppression, we can have hope in God’s timing and wisdom.  He DOES see our struggle; he DOES care, and he WILL send hope and rescue.

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But the song also points out a pitfall–in the first verse, the prayer is for Emmanuel to rescue Israel from Roman Occupation; to end its immediate plight of being politically and economically oppressed.  There were many people who saw Messiah, heard him speak, even felt his touch, who rejected him because he did not do what they were expecting.  There are many today who cannot believe in Jesus Christ because he doesn’t take away their current circumstances of pain and suffering.

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In their narrow focus, people miss the greater miracle of what Messiah is all about.  Jesus did not come to free us from temporary troubles and trials; to make us comfortably apathetic or arrogantly victorious over personal poverty or sickness.  He came to free us to be able to overcome our circumstances to offer hope where there seems to be no hope.  He came to show us that our circumstances don’t define us or cut us off from God’s love; that our past is not more powerful than His forgiveness and power to heal; that even suffering and oppression can be endured with joy, even as we work together to overcome them.

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This season, as we sing this hymn, I pray that we would see the continuation of this prayer.  Emmanuel HAS come– Jesus not only came and won the victory over sin and death on Calvary; he has commissioned US to be the bearers of the Good News.  There are dark places in the world praying for hope and rescue to COME.  Will we share the love of Christ in our own neighborhoods?  When we bear the name of Christ, we should be on mission to rescue those who are captives, not of Rome, but of Sin and the tyranny of Death.  So that we all can  know the reason to Rejoice! Rejoice!

Of Mighty Winds and Strong Towers

Seventeen years ago today, I was, like many people around the world, glued to a TV watching with horror as the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City were spewing fire, ash, paper, and even bodies before collapsing.  I sat in shock as I watched footage of the second plane smashing into the south tower.  People running away as rescue vehicles rushed toward the panic.  And as the towers fell, the smoke rose, filled with the last breaths of those trapped inside, along with the collective breaths of their families, friends, and the world.  A silent gray gasp– a frozen moment of silence in the midst of sirens and screams.  Time stopped at least twice that day.  Motions and emotions were suspended in those columns of smoke– love and memory, hopes and dreams– all drifted silently away from the open wound that was lower Manhattan.

History Channel 9/11 Timeline

Reports came of further hijackings and an attack at the Pentagon.  We were stunned; we were horrified; we were helpless.

fireman holding hose during daytime
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And then, amazing things started to happen.  Stories of heroism and miraculous rescues.  The initial estimates of people killed ranged in the tens of thousands–all morning, they climbed higher– by Wednesday, they began to fall as more people were located.  Others were rescued from the debris as thousands of workers poured in to help.  Caravans and convoys of supplies– food, water, medical supplies, rescue workers and excavators– rolled, sailed, walked, or were ferried in.  In the first years, more stories emerged.   As horrific and tragic as the events of 9/11 were, they could have been even worse.  The initial panic morphed into resolve.  People who wouldn’t have spoken to their neighbors now worked side by side in shelters and clean-up efforts.  People who shouldn’t have lived through it did, while others who shouldn’t have cared willingly shared their time, their resources, their skills, their homes, and even their lives to help others.

fire fighter wearing black and yellow uniform pointing for something
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Ironically, the buildings were designed to withstand a hurricane.  Today, the east coast of the U.S., including potentially New York City, is preparing for the arrival of a hurricane.  The buildings of the World Trade Center were built with the hope that they would be strong enough to survive high winds and floods; able to provide emergency shelter and protection to thousands in the event of a natural disaster.  They were leveled by an unnatural force of evil and hatred meant to destroy life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

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There are no man-made towers that can protect against the force of evil in our world– mighty winds of change, forces of nature, powerful attacks, acts of war, and collapse can occur without warning.  There is only one strong tower that can withstand the deadly forces of sin and hate and despair.  God stands firm and unshakable, offering to save all who come within His embrace.  He may not bring us through without wounds; He may even allow us to go through the valley of the shadow of death.  He doesn’t promise perfect weather or days without struggles.  He won’t remove us from the storm, but He invites us to take our shelter in Him.  He won’t make you take shelter; he won’t make you evacuate your house built on the sand.  He may calm the storm or stop the winds and waves.  He may ask us to weather them in their full force.  We may even lose this mortal life, but He will keep the soul that is stayed on Him.  And He won’t leave us to face the storm alone.

island during golden hour and upcoming storm
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Today, I pray for those who are remembering that horrible day in 2001, and those who are facing an uncertain 9/11 today.  May each one feel God’s strength, shelter, and comfort in the midst of this life’s storms.

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