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Look and Live

The_Brazen_Serpent_1618_20

Such odd, odd stories in the Bible.

It seems like, every few weeks or so, I stumble upon another one.  Not that they are necessarily “new” to me—after all, I am well-versed in the flannelgraphs of the 70’s.  Musty-smelling cut-outs of Bible figures that would “stick” to a board covered in flannel.  My favorite stories were of Noah’s ark.  I liked it when I was chosen to add the zebras to the board.  Conversely, the story I didn’t like (and that definitely was not in the Bible) was the story of the mother hen whose body was charred beyond recognition because she covered her chicks during a wildfire.

Yeah, that one kept me up at night.

But I liked most of the others.  And they did give me a basic education in the stories of the Bible.

But, somehow, the stories are more captivating now.  Or, maybe it is that they are captivating in a completely different way than cool zebras and lions in a big boat (how the heck did they all fit??) and that great feeling of sitting as quiet as a mouse in hopes of being chosen as the good girl for Zebra duty.

Take, for instance, that snake on that stick.

In Numbers 21.

I ran across that in some other work I was doing this week, and it has sat there in my brain for a few days.  Because it’s strange.  So strange.

The quick version:  the Israelites complained.  Again.  They not only spoke against Moses, but they also spoke against the God who had seen, who knew, and who rescued them.

God’s response was swift and would not be soon forgotten.  It came in the form of fiery serpents with vicious, death-producing bites.  And many died.

But when the people admitted their sin, and begged of Moses to pray on their behalf, he did.  And’s God’s response was a directive to Moses.  A strange one.  He was to fashion a bronze serpent, fasten it to a pole, and put it in the midst of the people.

And, the command was, “Look and live.”

Those who gazed upon this bronze serpent lifted above them would live.  Can you imagine the clamor around that pole?  The jostling?  The pushing, the shoving for the right angle, the right position so they could clearly see the bronze image?  Surely their desperation to live created an urgency to not just glance at this object that would save them, but to gaze upon it.  To stare a hole straight through it.  To fix their eyes upon it.

To really, really look.

Flip the pages of scripture to another familiar passage.  A passage in John 3 that I memorized one year at Vacation Bible School as a child so I could pick a prize from the treasure chest at the end of the week.  It’s funny, because I certainly didn’t put the two stories together in that dusty sanctuary as I recited all of those words.  Shoot, I had absolutely no idea what all those words meant.  I just liked words–and prizes–and being the “best”.

And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

I get it now; but yet, really, I don’t.

I understand the Jesus was lifted up, on the cross, to save the people…to save me…just like that bronze serpent (and why a serpent??  That always makes me think of the serpent in Genesis…but that’s not the point).  I understand that, just as those desperate, complaining sin-bitten Israelites had to gaze upon that bronze serpent that was lifted up in their midst in order for their lives to be saved, we too must gaze upon the one who was ultimately lifted up so that we, too may be saved–from separation that never ends.  From darkness.  From all manners of awfulness.  From hell, whatever that is.

But, so often, I don’t get it.  I don’t gaze upon the one that I have said I believe in.  I take sideways glances….fearful to look intently.  Or, I study Him as a specimen.  A theological term that I must dissect and define and use properly in a sentence.  I wrap my brain in so much cynicism and detachment, that I dance all around the one sent to die on the cross in order to save me from my sin–from myself–and rarely do I look and live.

Look and live, Moses said.

And John echoes that, though not in so many words.  But, essentially.

Look and live.  Believe and live.

The cure is odd.  Peculiar.  Strange.  And yet, it is what is needed for the poison in our veins.  We run to the pole, or rather, the cross, to not just glance, but to gaze.  To be transfixed.

To worship the only one who can save.

Shocking Grace

Grace

I’ve been listening to the Together for the Gospel live stream yesterday and today.  Such good stuff.  I’m so thankful that I have a job that, apart from sitting in on meetings, allows me the ability to stream these sessions in the background while I do documentation work.

In particular, the panel on justice this morning was superb.  And, surprisingly, the workshop by Timothy Keller this afternoon–on preaching, of all things–has been the most encouraging so far in terms of words to my mind and soul.

But what has surprised me a bit is the effect that listening in on the worship sessions has had on my soul.  Old songs, new songs—all incredibly settling.  Songs that I have clung to with my very nails in the past few years…like Though He Slay Me, and All I Have is Christ.  Timeless words, such as those in In Christ Alone and Be Thou My Vision and so many others.

Solid, solid words.

Not shallow.  Not “feel good” love songs better song at a wedding yet masked as worship songs.  Not verse chorus verse chorus bridge chorus rinse repeat repetition and if you throw in some alliteration you get bonus points.

No, this is stuff I can think about.

This is stuff I can pray.

These are psalms.

I’m not sure why, but I’ve paid closer attention to the words of some of these songs both yesterday and today.  One verse, in particularly, sent me scrambling to find something I had recently read.  About forgiveness of sin.

It’s a section of words that Philip Yancey wrote, on his website.  When I first read them, I gravitated to them because I had been reading and thinking about the thief on the cross, in the days leading up to Easter.  And, asking the “Why?” questions that so often get me in trouble.

Like:  Was his faith real?  Or was it jailhouse/death row religion?  That last desperate grasp, in the very last moment.  Fire insurance, if you will.

And, many more. (Thank you brain.)

So I re-found the words from Yancey, when I heard the words to a particular hymn.  Here are Yancey’s words, first.  I’ll share the hymn in a bit.

In one of his last acts before death, Jesus forgave a thief dangling on a cross, knowing full well the thief had converted out of plain fear. That thief would never study the Bible, never attend synagogue or church, and never make amends to all those he had wronged. He simply said “Jesus, remember me,” and Jesus promised, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” It was another shocking reminder that grace does not depend on what we have done for God but rather what God has done for us.

Jesus knew.  He knew.  This thief–this low life, this thrown away, this sinner–he would never be a Sunday School teacher or visit any shut-ins or go on any mission trip.  He would never have some “amazing” testimony that he could share on the speaking circuit.  Because he was breaths away from being dead.

And yet.

And yet Jesus forgave him.  Forgave him.  Jesus saw the scrap of 11th hour faith and the man’s recognition that Jesus was who he said he was, and he heard this thief’s acknowledgement that Jesus was no ordinary man, in his words to the hard-hearted thief (Do you not fear God?).

And he was saved.

That kind of grace is so hard to understand.  It is beyond us.  Even though I know I would ultimately fail–because I could never work hard enough, and I am o, so good at failing, I have degrees in failing–I still want to earn God’s favor.  Earn salvation.  Earn justification.  Earn sanctification.

So, the hymn.  That wonderful, painful hymn.

There is a Fountain Filled with Blood

Written by William Cowper in 1772.  A man plagued by great depression and anxiety and fear bordering on insanity.  A man that many probably saw as flawed.  Deeply flawed.  And whom we know considered himself to be flawed.

He wrote these words in the second verse of this hymn:

The dying thief rejoiced to see that fountain in his day;
And there have I, though vile as he, washed all my sins away.
Washed all my sins away, washed all my sins away;
And there have I, though vile as he, washed all my sins away.

What must the thief have experienced–in both his mind and soul–in those moments between his encounter with Jesus and his last gasp?  Was it relief?  Shock?  Rejoicing, such as Cowper imagined here?

Joy, in the throes of death?

But here’s the kick….here is where this hymn gets me:  “And there have I, though vile as he, washed all my sins away”

God’s grace is shocking.

His grace, to the thief, is shocking.

His grace to any of us is shocking.

His grace, to me (though vile as he!!!), is shocking.  A thousand times over.

And I can never earn it, though try as I may.  No matter how much hard work I do.  I can not earn it.

Shocking.

Dwelling in Safety

In peace I will both lie down and sleep,

I am finding it hard to settle tonight.  Or rather, in these early hours of the morning.

Sleep is elusive.

Most nights, I can at least eventually fall asleep.  Usually, it is the staying asleep that is the issue.

But tonight, it’s the falling asleep that has me laying here, pounding out page after pass-word protected page of words.  Prayers.  Thoughts.  Questions.

Maybe it is the post I wrote earlier this evening that is keeping me awake.  Or, maybe it is my old enemy of the fear of falling asleep, only to be awakened by things that haunt that is keeping sleep from descending.

Or, maybe it is just a sleepless night.  We all have them, after all.

The air is thick.  My mind is not still; not settled.  My soul is weighed down.  It is ridiculous, but I am fearful.

I am not a good memorizer of scripture.  I should be, but I’m not.  I don’t put the time in that it takes, and I’ve never really made it a priority.  But there are a few scriptures that are so ingrained in my mind that I don’t have to look them up.  Mostly, they are scriptures that, at times, I have pounded out over and over and over again at my keyboard.  Word after word after word.  Psalm 4:8 is one such verse:

In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety.

I need reminded of this so very often; this declaration.  This almost-command.  This reminder that, by His grace alone, I do dwell in safety.  Even when my mind lies to me and tells me that I do not.  When my mind tells me that I am not safe.  Even when the nightmares assault.  I do dwell in safety, because my God makes me to dwell there.  In safety.

And only He can do that.

The Post I Didn’t Want to Write

wood

I started this post in October.  Of 2013

It’s sat here in the recesses of this website, in draft form, for 1 Year, 7 months.

I’ve looked at it a time or two.  I’ve even opened it up and proceeded to add some words.  I’ve erased some words as well.

I don’t want to write this post.

I’d rather write something light-hearted on this beautiful spring day, after spending the afternoon on the deck at Sweet Frog with my crew.  Or maybe something on productivity.  Or one of the zillion theological questions my brain tends to ponder (admittedly, that’s not light-hearted.  But it is nerdy.) Or something funny, even.  There’s much funny that happens in a tiny house with one single parent, one young adult, two teenagers (now that the third is at boot camp) and a dog.  And maybe a lizard (hmm, I should probably check on that status.)  And the boy friend of the young adult.  (No need to check that status.  I know he’s around).  And a gaggle of friends of the teens.  Playing kitchen soccer or table-top football.  Belting out songs to Phantom of the Opera and cooking junk food.  There is much laughter.  This is not a boring place.

But, here it is, April.

And it is Sexual Assault Awareness month.

Sexual Assault is sexual abuse.  And Sexual Abuse is always, always, always assault.

And when the heinous evil occurs within the walls of a church, it shatters.  Shatters.

It’s a subject I don’t write much on here.  For many reasons.  I do have a resource page for victims and those who minister to/care for those victims.  I’ve touched on it a time or two in the course of writing here in this space.  But to look at it straight in the face in such a public forum and to call it for what it is and to write public words about it—that I always find a bit challenging.

That is why this post has lain dormant for several months.

I do not speak from inexperience.  I wish that I did.

This week alone (in October 2013, I think that is when I am referring to), I’ve read in the news of a few ministers who have been or are in the process of being sentenced for horrific crimes.  I don’t like reading these accounts, but on some days it is like a moth to a flame.  Sometimes I can move on to the next news article.  Other days, I read.  And burn.

There is a dark, suffocating evil that weaves itself around the sin of sexual abuse.  No, rather, that is the sin of sexual abuse.  It often involves power, domination, closed doors, threats, and the breaking of all things right in the world.  And when it enters the church, perpetrated by the very ones who have been tasked with teaching the gospel, it creates a whole different realm of horrid confusion.

On one hand, I have been taught and have heard all my life that all sins are equal, and equally forgive-able by God.  That it is just the wake of destruction that varies.  And, maybe that is true.  The wake of destruction post sexual abuse certainly is equal to that of a tsunami, coming in wave after wave after choking, drowning wave.

But, I’m not entirely sure that it is true.  I don’t doubt that they are forgive-able, but I can’t quite get my mind wrapped around the idea that they are equal.  I don’t think that they are.  I certainly do not understand the theological subtleties that surround the disaster that this sin is, so maybe that question is better left to those much smarter than myself.

What I do know, to the very core of my soul, is that this shadowy evil has to be–is–particularly evil.  Particularly evil, because it damages deeply–not just the victim’s self, but the victim’s perception of church.

And of God.

We don’t like to think about it.  We don’t like to dwell on it.  And we shouldn’t, because if we live fearful lives within our local community of believers, we really aren’t communities.  We are called together to worship together.  To make disciples.  To care for needs.

But, someone has to think about it.

Someone has to be aware.

And that is why I’ve returned to this post, in this month of Sexual Assault awareness.  To sound a warning bell.  To plead with church leadership across all denominations, in large mega churches and small country churches.  In fact–small country churches may need the warning more than larger churches, just by the nature of “trust” that is sometimes given in those environments to “Brother so-and-so”.  Regardless–all churches, missionary organizations, parachurch organizations, everywhere:

Protect.  Your.  Children.

Protect.  Your.  Youth.

There are resources available–excellent, sound resources–to help walk you through steps you can take as a church.  How to do background checks.  How to establish policies.  What to do if a registered sex offender decides to visit your church, or ask for membership.  Some of those resources I have listed on my resource page.  The book On Guard by Deepak Reju looks to be particularly helpful for church staff, though I’ve not been able to bring myself to read it.  You could read his excellent article here at this link over at The Gospel Coalition.  As church staff, though, you have a responsibility to do everything within your power to put safeguards in place.  Discuss these things.  Review them periodically.  Schedule that review so it is on the staff planning calendar.

I am so grateful to be a member of a church that takes these things seriously.

But sometimes, nightmares occur even when the best safeguards are in place.

And, in those moments, what is our response, as Christ-followers, to those whose lives are shattered?

I’m not entirely sure.  I’m not entirely sure, in spite of the fact that I have been granted the honor of entering the stories of a small number of victims.  It is an honor, anytime you are allowed to sit with someone in their pain.  I do so woefully imperfectly and inadequately.  But, in working with these amazing individuals, I do know this:

The pain is long-term and deep, and requires a long-term and deep response from those of us who follow Christ and know that what scripture says is truth, and who also know that the depth of His grace and mercy and love is truth as well.

Because it is grace, mercy and love that is needed.

And time.