Friday, April 17, 2020

A Testimony of Grace Through Two Lenses

The Poetry Lens: Silver

(a work in progress)

It was on Good Friday it happened.

My parents had raised me in church:
Sunday service,
Sunday school,
choir and handbells,
learning a creed, a Psalm, a prayer,
a commandment or ten,
confirming vows with my classmates,
and I thought doing those things made me a Christian.
(I even read my Bible on my own at night for extra credit, to round out my resume.)

I was firstborn, perfectionist, eager to please parents and teachers,
a "good girl," except when I snuck change off my dad's dresser
or lied to avoid punishment or amaze and amuse my friends.
My "good" was good enough for the grown-ups,
so I thought it was good enough for God.

On that Good Friday twenty-five years back,
I didn't know I was lost, but
He found me,
there on my knees beside the bed,
fretting over possible embarrassment in singing alone for the first time.
He gave me new eyes,
better than first glasses,
and suddenly I saw what I had not seen:
that perfectionism wasn't perfection,
that only perfect was good enough for God,
that only Jesus was the good enough,
that the Good Enough sweated life's blood and died for sins not His own,
for my sins, all my own.

My resume was rubbish,
my Sunday best smeared and tattered,
and I was as dead as an armadillo on the interstate.
I saw this,
and it took my breath away,
and He breathed in His,
His pneuma-breath-Spirit,
and I lived again for the very first time.

Singing was my birth cry,
The trumpets that Easter rejoiced for me,
and I went to Sunday service,
Sunday school,
choir and handbells.
I said the creed, prayed the prayers, sang the hymns,
and they lived with His presence.
How had I missed Him there all these years?
I even read the Bible in the mornings,
for joy,
for sustenance,
for He was there.

I couldn't get enough of Him,
yet found enough in Him,
my Lord Jesus Christ.

That Good Friday was my Good Friday too,
and my Easter, all in one,
when I was crucified with Christ,
when my tomb was emptied
and my life hidden with Christ in God.

By grace I have been saved.

The Prose Lens:

It was the foolish thing of my first vocal solo, for the Good Friday tenebrae service 33 years ago, which my God and Father used to bring me to the end of myself and show me how crooked my straightest line was compared to the straight-edge of Christ. (There are many variations on the tenebrae service. In the church of my youth, a dozen or so Scripture readings from the Last Supper through the Crucifixion alternated with choral music. During the service, candles and lights were gradually extinguished until we left the church in silence, in near darkness.)

Until that point, I thought participating in every available church activity and believing facts about God from the Apostles' Creed meant I was a Christian. Surely doing the BSF home lessons my mom shared earned me extra credit. To my shame, I remember one lesson specifically, on the Beatitudes, which asked me to assess myself on the various characteristics, and in my eyes I was really doing quite well, thank you very much.

Being the type-A perfectionist oldest child that I am, when I found out the lyrics of my song came from the account of Jesus at the Garden of Gethsemane, I spent the weeks before the service immersing myself in the Gospel passages describing it. When the day of the solo arrived, stage fright overtook me and I told my mom, who was working on something in the kitchen, that I couldn't sing this and we'd just have to call the music pastor and tell him to choose someone else. Exasperated with me, she said, "What's the name of the song again?"

"Um, 'Thy Will Be Done.'"

"Well, then, go to your room, get on your knees, and just tell God that."

I did, and the Lord opened my heart to understand the passages I'd been reading. He showed me my sin; He showed me my Savior. I trusted Him, trusted that Jesus Christ died for the forgiveness of my sins. His love swept me off my feet. By His grace, He led me that day from knowing some things about God to knowing God, or beginning to.

From that day, I began rising early to pray and read my Bible because I loved it, because I loved Him. The hymns came alive as my sung prayers. The communion liturgy expressed my unworthiness and gratitude for Christ's work on my behalf. The Lord made me hungry for Christian books and music and graciously led me to the good and Biblically faithful and protected me from the false.

I have no memory of anyone ever "sharing the gospel" with me, calling me to repent and trust Christ, or telling me of my need to be converted. My church didn't do any of that, but that's another story for another time. It took several years and a change of churches before I began to have language for what had happened on that Good Friday which changed everything for me. It will take the rest of my life and then forever to understand that salvation as fully as a girl like me can. I am so grateful. So, so grateful. Blessed be the name of the Lord.

If you know Him, too, perhaps this will take you back to the memorial stones of your own salvation? If you don't and want to, I pray the Lord would use this to show you His holiness, your sin, and the sufficiency of Christ's death; I pray you would trust Jesus as your own personal Savior and embark on the journey of knowing God today. {If you do, please let me know in the comments or by e-mail at crumbsfromhistable
at gmail dot com?}

Sunday, April 12, 2020

Easter Lily: A Poem

But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they went to the tomb,taking the spices they had prepared. And they found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus.

Luke 24:1-3, ESV 

In unseen Saturday silence
Petals unfurl, 
Mute trumpets crying out 
With rolled-away stone: 

"Take hope! Take heart! 
Why do you seek the living among the dead? 
He is not here; He is risen! 

"Your trust, your toil, His promise are not vain. 
Death will be swallowed up in victory. 
This body of death, 
This broken life, 
This night of tears are not the end. 

"At last trumpet's fanfare 
Dead shall be raised, 

White heralds soundless sound: 
"Christ has died; 
Christ is risen; 
Christ will come again." 

Saturday, April 11, 2020

Tolkien, Easter, and Eucatastrophe

Once upon a time, I read the essay "On Fairy Stories,"  by the late Professor J.R.R. Tolkien (better known today as the author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings).  Towards the end of the essay, he discusses "the Consolation of the Happy Ending" as "the true form of fairy-tale, and its highest function" (22).

The climax of a tragedy would be the catastrophe, the pivotal point in the story when everything falls apart for the hero.  For fairy-tale, Professor Tolkien coins a new word, "eucatastrope," for "the sudden joyous 'turn'" of events.  (The "eu-" means "good" and sounds like the word "you.")  This would describe the moment when Luke Skywalker destroys the Death Star, when the prince kisses Snow White to awaken her, when the Velveteen Rabbit discovers he has become real. In Tolkien's own work, eucatastrophe occurs when Aragorn and his army fight valiantly in the shadow of Mount Mordor though all hope for Middle Earth appears lost, and suddenly Sauron and his empire disintegrate when the Ring is destroyed.

Tolkien says that this quality is not an attempt to escape the world's sorrows.  On the other hand, he writes,
. . . it is a sudden and miraculous grace, never to be counted on to recur.  It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophy [tragic ending], of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium [good news, gospel], giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.
It is the mark of a good fairy-story. . . that however wild its events, however fantastic or terrible the adventures, it can give to child or man that hears it, when the 'turn' comes, a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears, as keen as that given by any form of literary art (22-23, emphasis and additions mine).
If I'm understanding the professor correctly, we love and value happily-ever-after endings because they point towards the Happy Ending, the triumph of Christ over sin, death, and all the other brokenness of the world.

The Bible itself is one grand, unified, beautiful, true story as well as a collection of smaller ones.  In this overarching Genesis-to-Revelation narrative (or metanarrative), Easter is the eucatastrophe and best understood in that context.  On Good Friday, all the disciples' hopes for God's kingdom seem dashed as Jesus Messiah is dead and entombed.  The rolled-away stone and resurrection turn that despair on its head on the third day.

Easter is the great Happy Ending from which all others proceed, the eucatastrophe not only of a fairy story but of all history.  The empty tomb looks dyscatastrophe in the eye and triumphs over it.  What's more, in many ways Easter is not an end but a beginning of a new era, a new story for all who believe in the risen Christ; as Professor Tolkien writes, "there is no true end to any fairy-tale" (22).  As Paul says it, "Therefore if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; old things have passed away, and look, new things have come" (2 Corinthians 5:17, HCSB).

"Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.  According to His great mercy,  He has given us a new birth into a living hope  through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead" (1 Peter 1:3, HCSB).  May you walk in the reality of this joyous living hope today.

Christ is risen; the Lord is risen indeed.  Hallelujah

Friday, April 3, 2020

Christian Lament {From the Archives}

How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me? 
How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?
Consider and answer me, O LORD my God;
light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death, 
lest my enemy say, "I have prevailed over him,"
lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken. 
But I have trusted in your steadfast love;
my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. 
I will sing to the LORD,
because he has dealt bountifully with me. 
- Psalm 13, ESV

In light of recent world events and the ongoing sorrows of everyday life in this fallen world, we do well to remember that rejoicing is not the only appropriate emotional response to the life circumstances God assigns us.

My Bible reading lately has been in Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Lamentations, and a bleak stretch it is. Israel has persisted in disobedience and idolatry for so long and to such an extent that God sends Assyrian and Babylonian forces to conquer them and carry most of the people away into 70 years of captivity. Jerusalem is besieged and sacked, the temple is destroyed, and the Glory has departed.

In the face of such catastrophe, faith does not demand that we put on a plastic smile when our hearts are breaking. God does not desire us to be false with Him. Grief is a spiritual discipline, too, and at times the only right and appropriate response.

Godly grief expresses itself in the laments of Scripture. Job's speeches and Lamentations fall in this category, and individual or corporate lament is the largest subcategory of the Psalms (which fall under the broader heading of lyric poetry). Scholars estimate that at least a third of the Psalms express lament; a few examples include Psalms 13, 22, 40, 59, 74, 88, and 109.

The Thomas Nelson Study Bible describes Biblical lament this way:
In the lament psalms, we hear the strong, emotional words of sufferers. These are words written by real people in very difficult situations. Sometimes the forcefulness of the psalmists' complaints against God is shocking. But these godly sufferers know that God will not be angry with their honesty, for even when they scream at God, it is a scream of faith (887).
These are the prayers for the sleepless nights and weary days, for the seasons when we feel like Bilbo Baggins, "too little butter spread over too much bread," for the days which seem more Romans 7 than Romans 8, for hospital rooms and funeral homes. The sheer multitude of laments in Scripture bears witness that hardship is a commonplace in life in a broken world, yet God desires to fellowship with us in the midst of suffering as we cry out to Him. What is more, they offer us a guide for how to do so and give us words when we have no words.

Although no strict pattern applies to every lament, common elements include
  • an initial cry to God,
  • the list of complaints,
  • a profession of reliance on God,
  • a presentation of reasons God should intervene (such as past covenants, promises, and actions that shape the psalmist's expectations of the future),
  • specific requests for deliverance and action, and
  • a resolution to praise (TNSB, 887, and Leland Ryken, How to Read the Bible as Literature, 114-115).
These elements may occur in any order or repeat, and some may not appear at all. Psalm 88 never turns the corner from lament to praise, which gives me comfort and confidence that I don't even need to pretend to or force an emotional pivot point before God.

However, Israel incurs God's displeasure and discipline when they whine and complain. What's the difference between grumbling and lament?
In my understanding, there are at least four areas of difference:
  • Audience: Grumbling speaks about God to other people; lament addresses God directly in prayer. This resembles the difference between gossip and conflict resolution.
  • Content: Complaint disputes God's previously revealed character; lament seeks to reconcile God's character with circumstances that seem to contradict it.
  • Attitude: Grumbling stems from a heart of unbelief; lament worships in wounded faith.
  • Result: Whining produces rebellion; lament limps forward in obedience as best it can.
Amid all the disasters and crises in the daily news and the personal trials facing friends, family, and ourselves, it comforts me to know that I can pour out my heart like water before the Lord (Lamentations 2:19) and mourn with Him as well as dance for joy. Learning about lament set me free to do that, even writing my own laments from the patterns above, and I have found the Psalms to be helpful guides to prayer in times of trouble. May you also find blessing in these thoughts as you grow in relationship with God in the hard times as well as the glad.