Broken Vows, Broken Hearts: The Never-ending Story

“Open my lips, Lord, and my mouth will declare your praise. You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, O God, will not despise.” (Psalm 51:15-17, NIV)

David wrote this Psalm after he had his affair with Bathsheba and arranged to have her husband Uriah killed. Like all of us, David fell prey to his own pride and lust, and did just what he wanted to do even though he knew it was wrong. The same man who sang passionate night-time praises to God on the hillsides, who declared his undying faith and devotion to the Lord, had thumbed his nose at God. He decided, like many broken people, to go do something selfish, sinful, and downright evil. Now his lips were silent and he was mute with shame.

David was the king over Israel, a party in a covenant relationship with God, blessed beyond measure, and yet he caved in to his own fleshly desires and committed sins that were unthinkable to most people. He fell from the heights of blessing to the depths of depravity. He allowed himself to slip back into sin when he was surrounded by God’s blessings. He loved God passionately at times but still wandered away into tawdry, worldly activity, trading his spiritual relationship for instant gratification. Sound familiar? It should. It’s your story. It’s everyone’s story.

No matter who you are, no matter how close you are to God, there are times when you turn away from Him and do what you want to do. Your fleshly desires motivate you to lie, to covet, to commit sins in both deed and thought. You act publicly humble while you wallow in pride, you judge others when you are unworthy, and you act with impunity regardless of consequences. You start taking baby steps into sin until you have wandered afar off… And then you stop, realizing that you have broken trust with the Lord, that you have violated Christ’s sacrifice, and that, like the lost son you are broken and far from home.

Even though David wrote this Psalm when the Jewish sacrificial system was fully operational, he recognized that animal sacrifice was symbolic, that it portrayed publicly what God wanted to see going on in our hearts privately. The death of the animals represented the death of our flesh, given willingly so that God’s Spirit might live in us. Jesus told both Nicodemus and the woman at the well that the Father wanted spiritual worship, not fleshly devotion, just as he confirmed to Pilate that he was a king, but his kingdom was not of this world.

God doesn’t want burnt offerings, He wants our hearts. When we ignore Him, when we elevate ourselves above Him, and when we cave in to selfishness and sinful desires, God doesn’t want us dead; He wants us BACK. When we stray from God’s love, according to David, there is only one appropriate sacrifice. What God wants to see is a broken and contrite heart.

Nathanbroken

God is not looking for those things to ensure that we are suffering, or paying for what we’ve done. He wants to restore us, to keep deadly sin from destroying us, and He knows that the only way for us to stay free from its grip is to present ourselves, broken and contrite to Him. When is the last time you were broken and contrite? When did you last do business with God by presenting your broken spirit to Him without self-justification or reservation? When were you last brutally honest with yourself before the Lord, begging him for forgiveness?

Well, when was the last time you sinned? When did you last tell a white lie, or have a momentary flash of envy or hatred? When did you covet something, or put anything else before God? If there’s a gap between the last time you sinned, and the last time you were contrite, read David’s words again. You’ve got some business to do.

A Wanderer's Prayer 

I've wandered off, I've told some lies,
Allowed pure lust to veil my eyes,
Ignoring all my vows and "why's",
Wallowing where the spirit dies...

I could go offer sacrifice,
And hope somehow, by its device
That my heart, though as cold as ice
Would quicken if it payed the price.

And when I rise to face my lies
The tears are streaming from my eyes,
Because no ritual sacrifice will have the power to suffice,
Nor any prophet's sage advice!

So now, my Lord, I realize 
The truth I should have known there at the start:
You, my Lord, will not despise
A broken spirit and a contrite heart.



Life Eternal: Is it the Quantity that Matters, Or is it the QUALITY?

In John 14:6 Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the LIFE”: This life Jesus mentions is eternal, and that’s what we usually focus on, isn’t it? John 3:16 says that whosoever believes on him has everlasting life. It captures our interest because it is immortal and incorruptible. It will be everlasting. For many people, Christianity is an eternal insurance policy because it offers the possibility of living after death, and who doesn’t want to live forever?

But to me, that’s not what makes Christianity so compelling. In John 10:10 Jesus describes not a quantity but a QUALITY of life: “I am come that they might have life, and have it more abundantly.” This type of living begins NOW, not when we die. It is yours now, in the midst of a dying, broken world. It’s a lifetime free from worry, fear, death, prejudice, injustice, hopelessness, and selfishness. It is living within the possibility of joy, peace, faithfulness, forgiveness, and love. Eternal life does not erase the realities of a fallen world, but it creates new realities about how we live within it.

This eternal life does not transport us directly to heaven, but it brings heaven to us, and offers a spiritual means to navigate a carnal world. In “The Silver Chair” by C.S. Lewis, a pessimistic character named Puddleglum is held captive by a witch in her depressing under world, which she claims is the only real world. Even though Puddleglum’s group follows the great Lion Aslan, she denies his existence and tries to seduce them into giving up. She holds them prisoner in her underworld and surrounds them with false enchantments suggesting that Aslan and his world do not exist. Puddleglum and his friends are beginning to believe her fabrication when he rouses himself and even without full proof or certainty, makes the following declaration:

life

“Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things—trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow.”

In times of doubt, I’ve often looked at Christianity that way. What if it is all made up? What if there’s no heaven, no eternal existence? Well, for my money the values that Jesus taught still offer a better life than everything else. Even if Jesus didn’t live on earth and die (although we know he did) and even if he was not resurrected (although the evidences strongly suggests he WAS), then it would STILL be worth living a Christian life that offers love, service, peace, and comfort. In Puddleglum’s words, the qualities of the Christian life “lick the real world hollow”. The world calls you to anxiety, stress, and discouragement. It offers you temporary pain and temporary solutions. Jesus came so that your life could be abundant. From all that’s around you, choose abundance today. You might just find eternal to go along with it. What do you have to lose?

The WAY, the Truth, and the LIFE

Jesus said, “I am the Life”, and it is not redundant
To think: was longer life his aim? Or life that’s more abundant?
Pie in the sky when you die by and by might matter most to some,
Eternity and what will be in all the years to come;
But rather than the quantity, the thing that means the most to me
Is life that’s lived abundantly and characterized by quality.
Jesus said, “I am the Life”, and then He came to give it.
For those of us who follow him, our job is just to live it.

To purchase my newest book Real People, Real Christmas: Thirty-one Days Discovering the Hidden Treasures of the Christmas Story, go here: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1729034918/ref=oh_aui_detailpage_o00_s00?ie=UTF8&psc=1
For Slaying Giants: Thirty Days with David, go here: https://www.amazon.com/Slaying-Giants-Thirty-Devotions-Ordinary/dp/172568327X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1535814431&sr=8-1&keywords=Slaying+Giants%3A+Thirty+Days+With+David
To buy my book, Beggar’s Bread, go here: https://www.amazon.com/Beggars-Bread-Devotions-Ordinary-Guy/dp/1535457392/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1473336800&sr=8-1&keywords=Beggar%27s+Bread

The Right Kind of Revenge

“Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:17-21, NIV) As Paul illustrates what love looks like, he paints on the canvas of human relationships. There are a few subtle points in this passage that are important. A loving person, Paul says, does not repay evil for evil. As he encourages us all to live at peace with those around us, he agrees with what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount: “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? ” (Matthew 5:44, 46 NIV). We are not to seek vengeance when we are wronged, and we can achieve justice by leaving things in God’s hands. Peace is impossible where people seek vengeance. Gandhi reiterated this when he said, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind”. Paul encourages us to “leave room for God’s wrath”. This is a striking statement in the middle of a chapter about love, and one of the subtle points that are important in this passage. God’s wrath is a fierce and righteous thing. It is never capricious or frivolous, but always just and appropriate. We can depend on it. It addresses wrongs and ultimately (rightly) punishes those who harden their hearts. In C. S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, Aslan the great lion is portrayed as loving and kind. But the characters who know him are filled with respect, and even somewhat afraid of him. He is civil and majestic, but fearsome and dangerous. When they describe him they always say, “Oh he’s not a TAME lion”. God’s wrath is something pure, far above our petty motives and selfish ways. Romans 12 says we should allow HIM to administer perfect justice instead of attempting to straighten things out ourselves. SO what does that look like for you? I drive a LOT in traffic (in my job, on vacation, traveling, whatever) and I am a fairly assertive driver on a road filled with timid, distracted, or just plain selfish people. Of course I myself am a GOOD driver. As a result I tend to be critical of other drivers, and even offer commentary on their lack of skill, concentration, and judgment. My entire family has noticed this through the years, and it is an area of my Christian walk where I have often been less than loving. As I have gotten older, I’ve made some progress behind the wheel, and have at least become a bit less outwardly demonstrative toward the distracted drivers around me (which means: I don’t purposely cut them off, make unnecessary hand signals, or run them off the road) but I haven’t really lived in peace while driving. I am trying to apply Romans 12 to my driving, so I can exemplify a different attitude in the car. (Some days good, some days still not so good…) I’m not sure that letting someone merge when it’s not their turn will “heap burning coals” upon them, but I could at least offer good in response to evil and trust God to provide justice. I’m making a commitment here to try to be a more charitable and peaceful driver. SO… what’s YOUR application of Romans 12? What keeps you from living at peace with others? What frustrates you about your enemies? Get out there and overcome evil with good. God says He will take care of the rest.

From Pompeii to Cortona

I couldn’t imagine a more perfect evening. We have arrived at Cortona after our whirlwind Roman Holiday, and the change of pace from Rome is astonishing. There are birds singing, and the pale azure sky is accented by wisps of cotton scattered lazily across its vast, comfortable canopy. The temperature is utterly appropriate, and makes it possible to feel completely at home by the pool on grounds that are lovely as any I have ever walked upon. Flowers are celebrating the Italian Spring, and the smell of rosemary and jasmine resound like a nasal aria wafting over us in the very gentle breeze. Francesco and Christian are in the kitchen cooking our evening meal, which we will eat on the terrace in the courtyard, listening to the soothing, cheerful melodies that baptize us with pure joy. Good wine and good company make this a wonderful day to be alive.
I’m sure there were days like this in Pompeii before Vesuvius erupted and buried the city under tons of ash. There were beautiful days of sunshine and blessing. People were laughing, talking, eating, playing, and then– sudden disaster. They were caught and trapped in their homes, buried while attempting to escape, frozen in hot ash and a moment in time. On our tour of Pompeii the other day, there were molded images of their distress on display, bodies outlined from having been smothered under the falling volcanic debris. The bodies are people of all ages, shapes and sizes, grandparents and children, frozen now for centuries in their ashen state. The terror of sudden demise is expressed in their body language, and relentless time has turned them into morbid statues that we tourists gawk at with sympathy and relief.
So, what does Pompeii have to do with Cortona? Or more accurately, why am I sitting in this perfect evening at Villa Laura, thinking about death and destruction in Pompeii? Well, first of all, I think I appreciate this day more, having seen the unfortunate results visited upon those poor, ashen forms… And I should not only appreciate this day, but every day as a blessing and a reason to celebrate. The contrast between Pompeii and Cortona is a reminder that life is short, and we need to embrace the day at hand. Don’t waste it. Finally, we should be grateful for the life we have, because it is a blessing to be savored and appreciated. I shouldn’t need a perfect Cortona evening to inspire such gratitude, but I do intend to carry this evening forward with me as a permanent reminder that today counts. I hope you will too.

Strangers and Sojourners

We are getting ready to go on vacation today– and it’s one of those “once in a lifetime” vacations, to Rome (the eternal city) and Tuscany, the heart of Italian wine country and culture. We have been thinking about and preparing for this vacation for over a year, and it seemed as if this day would never come! We have spent hours thinking about going, looking forward to our sojourn in Italy. But now we are killing time today at home, waiting for our evening flight and in the meantime trying to think of what we might need in Italy, or what we may have forgotten to pack. We are also readying our home for our absence– our dog Abby is at grandma’s, the timers are set on a couple of lights, the potted plants are all near sprinklers now, and the thermostats are programmed. As I walk through our home, I feel strangely disconnected, knowing that I am leaving for even a short while to reside somewhere else. Even though our home is warm and familiar, I am looking forward to the journey ahead– new sights, new places and food, new friends, and new adventures! We have been so looking forward to this trip that it has affected our reading, our conversation, and our priorities. It’s amazing how an upcoming experience like this makes an impact on what we do and how we feel– and today we feel the thrill of anticipation, knowing that we will soon look upon work by Michaelangelo, DaVinci, and see first hand the wonders of ancient Rome… that anticipation is so pervasive that part of me has already left this familiar home and is projecting my thoughts to the trip ahead. I’m ready to go!

Then it struck me… I will also be going on a trip soon, one to the “eternal city”, one that will involve new places and friends, where the work of Michaelangelo and DaVinci will seem insignificant, and where growth, friendship, and revelation will be continuous and inspiring. Anticipation will be endlessly fulfilled and surpassed, conjoined with even more delightful anticipation that will be again fulfilled and surpassed. And I wondered… is THAT trip affecting my reading, my thoughts, my conversation? Has it changed my priorities? Am I looking forward to my ultimate destination with enough connection and assurance that I am preparing to go, taking care of details, and not feeling TOO connected to this familiar home? Peter said that we are aliens and sojourners, people on a journey to a wondrous destination, and that as temporary residents we should take care not to get too wrapped up in temporal pursuits. We are never told to ignore our place on this earth, but we are reminded of its brevity– so we should smell the roses, and appreciate not only where we are going, but we should also enjoy where we are, even when the season is temporary. May our journey enliven and transform us, and may we recognize the wonder in our sojourn, even as we anticipate the joy in our arrival!

What’s the most important word in the English language?

I first considered that question in 1978.  It was posed by Oscar Thompson, a seminary professor who happened to be dying of cancer, but for some reason was full of life, love and enthusiasm in spite of his circumstances. The class began to blurt out the logical answers: “Love!” “Money.” “Time.” “God!” “Eternity.” “Words, Language”– Oscar would say, “Nope, that’s not it; no, not that–without the word I am thinking of, none of that has any relevance”, or “that word is meaningless without the word”, and we spent several minutes trying to guess, reaching further for answers but coming up empty. “I’ll tell you the most important word”, Oscar said. “The most important word in the English language is relationship. Without relationship, love is meaningless– how can you love all by yourself? Money has no value except in relationship to exchange for goods or services, time is merely the way we try to track the relationship between events or thoughts or bodies in space, God has no place in our universe unless He is relating to us, eternity is empty without it, and words and language are only the relationship of letters to sounds to words to thoughts that enable us to express ourselves. Why, without relationships, we could not even use language or communicate. Without the word relationship, that very communication would be useless indeed!” Yes, my friends, I challenge you to come up with a more important word!” I have thought about Oscar’s premise now for 35 years, and I haven’t come up with a better “more important” word. And yet, very few of us think about the central role relationship plays in life or, if asked, would even choose that as the “most important” word…  I have asked that question of groups dozens, even hundreds of times, heard hundreds of responses, and not only has no one ever mentioned “relationship” as the most important word, I don’t think any group has ever even come up with it before I had to tell them. But I tell you this: relationship is the fabric of our lives, our medium as artists, the air we swim in (yeah I know)– it is why we are here. Oscar Thompson opened my eyes to that fact, and while it is a small thing I guess, it’s still a good thing to think about. Think about the important relationships in your life– family, bff’s, loved ones, friends… And what about God? How do you relate to Him? God is the God of relationships. He introduced himself to Moses, not as the majestic super-cosmic God of the universe, but as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Why, God’s very nature–Father, Son, Holy Spirit–means that He exists in the context of relationship! Probably why, since we are made in His image, we live in that context as well. Think about your relationships. Any that need repairing? Any you need to honor more? Wow, I am so bad about some, and take so many for granted… Opportunities for application abound! Maybe today would be a good time to dust off a neglected friendship, to reconnect with someone who used to matter to you; maybe today would be a good day to send up a little prayer and renew your relationship with the One who made Oscar Thompson so enthusiastic and alive even when he knew his time on this earth was short. He knew, and I am still learning, that the most important word in the English language connected us to the most important One of all.