A Table Set Only for Two

Spiritual lessons are learned through setbacks, heart breaks and failings; a heavy toll paid to create a conviction, and lived out by the grace of God. Here’s one I can’t get out of my system. “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies…”

Jesus invites me to sit down with Him every day, and across a small table, we talk about everything that tumbles out of my heart. We whisper, a lot like lovers would at a dark corner table, with candle lit, giving relief to two faces locked upon one another. And here’s my conviction: the table is set only for two. That is the image I carry with me to start my day. It’s what tucks me in at night. But like any spiritual lesson, it comes under attack. Three battles have taught me the value of the table set for two, battles that I still fight to gain the foothold of faith to enter in.

The battle to find the table, because it’s illusive. I have often sought in good places what the Psalmist described in Psalm 44, “the light of your face.” I have gone to music and let it lift me in a kind of transcendence I would call worship, but in the end it felt more like entertainment. I have used the Word with diligence pouring over its pages gobbling up volumes of its precious pages, and yet left it without being sated. I have also gleaned wisdom from many books, and know now why the wise Solomon said that ‘in many pages read, there is a weariness that settles in the soul.’ All of these are good means, and I was earnest about sitting at table, I just didn’t know I wasn’t sitting down. To sit means to ask the Holy Spirit to do what he promised in Romans 8:26, “to help us in our weakness.” As Henry Nouwen put it, “prayer is letting the Holy Spirit do his work in and through us.” That work is calling us, comforting us, leading us, and finally filling us, as we sit before perfect love.

The battle to keep the table intimate. How close do you feel to God during those times when it’s just the two of you? You’ve worked out the time issue; an hour perhaps more stretches before you. He’s whispered your name, and you blush, for His overtures are never comfortable to accept. But someone else is there, no, there are many others. They line what begins to feel like a last-supper length table on both sides. They are imps, devils trained in deception and half-truths. They are chattering loud enough to distract you, and every syllable they utter has a lie perfectly fashioned to disrobe you, and put shame squarely into your deepest feelings. The table that felt so intimate moments before, now feels like it’s growing, and with every lie you hear, your Lover gets further and further away. The devils shout mistakes, misjudgments, careless words, critical feelings, all with your name on them. But they are wrong, your name is no longer attached to those accusations. Only one name is, the name above all names, stamped upon each the moment from the cross, God uttered the words,“It is finished.” The better we know our own spiritual identity and worth, the closer we will be to the whispers, the overtures of pure love, and the clearer we will see ‘the light of His face.’

The battle to slow down, because the table can feel hurried. At the table set for two, my heart and God’s meld together, set like flint against the clock that demands I hurry, or suggests more important, more urgent things are looming. Imagine, is there anything else more important than unhurried time with Jesus Christ? My greatest mistake has come in bringing my day into the hour I have planned to sit at table, and letting it push me around during my attempts to connect with God’s heart. My concerns, appointments, complex conversations and hard decisions need to sit outside the room I enter where God and I sit together. Just a couple minutes of pre-prayer, handing over all the weight of my anxiety, breathes life into me, and calms my heart enough to be all present. No looking at the watch, no nervous arch of a backward glance; just face to alighted Face at the table set for two.

Listen, He’s whispering your name, ‘come, I’ve saved this seat just for you. I fight for you; I have given all of myself for you, would you please my heart in giving back the same?’

Can You Sit Still?

Can you sit still, just an hour or so?

Will you find in your calendar minutes for me, squeezed from seeming nothing?

Not time for time sake, or to appease conscience, but time for love to sit and relish in the company of companions.

I want to help you prove to yourself that you can offer to me, what I’ve so freely done for you.
Convenient? Hardly. Piles in the inbox, that gnawing, grinding tension in the belly sounding like alarm bells? Sure. But before the day’s sun casts long shadows upon its imminent end, I need you to steal time for me.

Rob the miser of his precious minutes, and cast them without restraint at my feet. They will feel like a waste, as if for so little effort, so little has been accomplished. But I want faith to win here, not pragmatism. The P word wins most of the hours of the day; let it lose this battle, and let it lose often.

Be an unabashed burglar for me, for us and for love. Steal time as though it’s value were a street fortune, because in the end, it’s all we have to give to the One who see’s not minutes, but an eternity for our love to grow.

A Christmas Paradox

What king would stoop so low,
As to touch a bed of straw?

‘No prince I know would have the gall!’

Yet, true the prophets said it so,
A king would be born one night.

‘But in a pauper’s plight?’

A cave, a cold dank thing it was
There bundled in the gloom.

‘Bah, Just as likely to cradle the moon!’

Then suddenly with breathless piercing pain,
Startled beasts saw it all begin;

‘A peasant birthing a king?’

A King at first they did not see,
The King? Yes, but dared not say.

‘If so, He turned golden a throne of hay.’

For a world bent beyond repair,
And redemption a foregone thought;

(In whisper): ‘Beheld what forever the prophets sought!’

‘What King would stoop so low?’

Only One, whose suckle and coo’s
Filled a squalid cave that night,

‘A King of King’s, the couple held!’

Agreed, and more… Eternal Life.

The Value of Obsession

moby-dick

I love the novel, Moby Dick. The fateful journey of captain Ahab and crew brings a kind of telescopic context to life. For Ahab, a near fatal first pass at the whale had him tasting brine mixed with his own blood. That defeat crept into his soul, and retribution became an obsession. The novel wends it’s way through turbulent Atlantic squalls, and calm southern seas, never resting long before Ahab’s dis-ease resurfaces, driving the Pequod’s crew like a stage coach before frothy fillies. Each crash of waves upon the bow, and every irrational decision by him, like a maddening crack of the whip, a rising surge of passion that brings the crew closer to their end.

Let me tell you why I identify so closely with a mad man. I like Ahab’s single focus, and his long nights of plotting the right course to intersect the whale. I love how he reminds his men over and over again of their mission, and gives reward for the first to spot the prize. Most of all, I love how his severed leg reminds him every moment of the unsuccessful first try at Moby Dick’s capture, and the lessons from his failure, he vowed he would not repeat.

How about you? Do you have a great aim in life, a single driving motivation? I’ll tell you mine; it is to get as close to God as Ahab did to Moby Dick. To look Him in the eyes, and know I have seen a glimpse of Him, whom I will spend eternity adoring. Without an obsession like this, there is a real possibility I will pass through life, settling for fair winds, and majestic sunsets, yet never get close enough for God to transform me into a fearless captain in my own right. For to get close to God means a man will come away altered.

How do we set the coordinates of our maps and calculations, so that our rendezvous with the God of glory is a matter of when, never if? How do we break from self-limitations, fears, or even cultural norms? How do we use obsession to our advantage?

To start, God uses time tested disciplines and devotion in our pursuit to connect with Him. True, we must be on a craft sound enough, and with a crew purposed enough to give getting close to the whale a fighting chance. We must have a resolute heart that will not flounder with the first tropical storm that pushes us off course. All these are givens, yet if we stop there, we will still miss out. It must begin and end with the Captain. Not a tragic Ahab figure, but the Captain of our souls, Jesus Christ. He is the means by which we draw near. The genius of God is that no one gets to Him alone.

If for a moment I think I can find and capture God on any level, then pride has already set me against Him. When God has stripped me of all my notions of His deity, and I humble myself, the residue what remains will be awe. And when awe for my Captain marks my life, a great process of purity has entered in. I will decrease, and God increase wholly.

The secret to the crew’s focus was the awe they held for their captain. Somewhere deep inside, each man knew he was a mate on a doomed voyage. Does that sound too tragic, too negative? Yet, consider this. The sailors of the Pequod understood that even if by good chance they returned home to loved ones, they would never be the same. Not with a captain so bent on getting close enough to such a dangerous whale that it’s power would be unleashed in a most personal way.

Jesus Christ wants us to get so close to God, that it gets very personal indeed. It’s why I love the image of the whale, a visual for what lies at the depths of my deepest motivation. I too stand in awe of the Captain of my salvation. He has already survived the first brutal brush with God, and it crushed Him, ‘for our sakes He was bruised, and the inequity of us all fell upon Him.’ Now through open seas, I glide with my Captain at the helm. I have surrendered my rights to wherever the future takes me, and however the future looks, whether storm tossed, or facing a murderous white whale. The passion of my Captain holds me in awe, the best and most enduring strength God can extend. He will bring me to the ‘Whale,’ yet in doing so it will undo me, because the Rare White Leviathan has never been touched without human transformation in His wake. God is the unconquerable, no-man-can-capture, and transcendent Spirit. The sweet brokenness of our pursuit will mark us with a sign of His ownership. It will build passion to pursue Him, and become the clearest of charts, pointing us to eternal life, which cannot be shattered, preserved and reserved for us in heaven, where God waits our journey’s end.

Elwood

In the back of my mind I’ve always carried a picture of Elwood. He was not a friend of mine. In fact, I despised him in high school. He was the track manager, and wore coke bottle glasses, hitched his pants up to his belly button, and carried one of those plastic contraptions in his pocket that held everything from a calculator to pens to erasers. I think the lost ark-of-the-covenant was probably somewhere near the bottom.

The reason I think about Elwood is because he’s the reason God woke me up one day and told me to keep hitching. Led me to the highway in up state New York, and proceeded to have me thrown off the road by a kind police officer. I was very happy he didn’t search me that day. Long hair, bohemia like pot smoking and severely stuttering, I moped my way down a service road and jumped the fence. How else was I getting to Boston? The next car that came by picked me up, and in the drivers seat was a normal looking man named Russ, who told me an extraordinary story about a manger, and an empty tomb, about love and purpose, and about how I might know all of this for myself. You see, Elwood the dork, Elwood the brunt of every joke, the classic nerd, and tortured soul, turned out to be Elwood my greatest champion. He prayed for me every day in high school. He put up with ridicule from me, his chief antagonist, nearly as often. He decided to be track manager JUST because he was praying for ME!

That leads me to a confession. I don’t want it as bad as Elwood wanted it. I don’t think I’m cut from the same devotion, the same cloth of sacrifice, willing to suffer under the calling to pray, just because that’s what God has offered as His very best! My more base motivation includes wanting others to think well of me. It includes, but not limited to, pleasing, performing, priding and pontificating, just so that I might feel a little better about myself. It’s all props, and all vapor, nothing of substance.
The other night I was kneeling in prayer, and God was once again having a little talk with me. He said something I still can’t get out of my mind. “You are invisible, until you are concrete love.” “What?” That’s exactly what I said. I strained to understand it. I began to wrestle with God, once again putting my resume out there for him to be impressed by, but He looked past it, and into my eyes. Seriously, this is how I experienced it. Then for some reason only He knows, Elwood’s picture popped into my head. No, not Elwood! ‘Are you willing be like him, for the sake of those I am stirring, leading, wooing and bringing to myself?’

I wish I could say I flung myself into a pile of repentance and took the plunge. I didn’t. I felt numb, sort of like hoping for a new red bicycle for Christmas, and getting bongo drums instead. You see, God and I, we’ve had this conversation before. He’s patient, and won’t give up on me. And He’s using Elwood, the example of a man under fire, a man full of guile, and a nerd, who hung out with a cock sure athlete named Kevin, whose inner life was crumbling under an avalanche of personal fear and rejection, and somehow he knew it. Elwood saw far beyond my brass exterior, to a place God was preparing, and prayed I would find that place. Two years later, I did. I will be forever thankful for Elwood.

I don’t know where he is, but wherever you are my friend, thank you. Yes, I call you friend. There are important things in life, and then there are really important things. To pray and not grow weary is one of those supremely important ones. Slowly and surely God is using a picture of a man whose dedication sloshed through rejection, but whose prayers paid huge dividends when a young long haired hippie met a man on a lonely stretch of interstate 87, bound for Boston to see an old flame, but instead found the living flame of love, Jesus Christ.

Get Ready for Your Float!

The last time floats cruised down the ‘canyon of hero’s’ in downtown Manhattan, was when the NY Giants after won the super bowl. I was standing 20 rows deep, and felt grateful to be there. A million others had been forced to crane their necks an entire block away, to snap futile IPhone shots of their hometown heroes, specks among pixels. The crowd was going haywire, nearly hysterical with excitement. Yet, after the final float passed, and the last confetti floated to the pavement, all that was left was the clean up crews. Not very long after the parade had passed, even while the players spoke at city hall, Broadway was nearly back to normal. I thought to myself, how quickly glory fades.

Last week I walked along the same route, only this time on my way with a college intern to a local high school. I found myself saying, “here we are in the canyon of hero’s, yet the work we do today will have more significance, and enduring impact, then if we rode one of those floats.” “How so,” a wide-eyed, college freshmen blinked back at me. “When we share the gospel today, names could be chiseled into the Lamb’s book of life, to stay there forever.” I hadn’t meant to say it, but when the words were in the wind, they came back to me with more force than I intended.

In the moment, a hero is immortalized by millions of adoring people. Their accomplishments put new faith and bounce into the hearts of everyone. Proud Americans pour out of their tenements, to give honor where honor is due. Nothing can take away from that moment, but in the end that’s all it is—a moment. The names of hero’s past are now embedded in the sidewalks lining the route, where everyday the soles of men and women trample their good name.

You and I steward a larger story that unfolds each day, in every nook and cranny of the globe. We are ordinary men and women who go quietly about our office with a fire in our hearts, and words of life ready on our lips. We will probably never stand on a float in NYC and be adored by millions. But our names are chiseled in an invisible book where real heroes reside. Hebrews chapter 11 talks about them. These men and women who have walked before us, will us on, cheer our successes, and identify with our failures. They remind us that books are better than sidewalks for immortalizing a soul. They stand where we someday will. And you know what, they cheer! Can you hear them?

We have a lot to look forward to in the canyon of hero’s where God resides. All the great ones will be there, along with you and me. Will we ride a float? Perhaps, but then again I think instead, we’ll first be enthralled by the one True Hero, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. He stands this good day beside the throne of God, and prays for us, advocates for us, and most special of all, holds our front row ticket for a day of endless floats, in a place time can not erase.

How to Pray for This Generation

David Livingstone died much the way he lived, in prayer by his bedside. He had cut a ‘gospel road’ through the interior of Africa, and forged alliances that ultimately lead to the abolition of slavery. So beloved was he that nations fought over his body. Britain wanted it returned for a proper ceremony, but the tribe would not give it up. Finally they relented, but cut the heart out and put a note on the body that said, “You can have his body, but his heart belongs in Africa!”

John Hyde entered the tough as nails missionary graveyard of Punjab, India as a young man, and left 20 years later in ruined health. Early on he learned how to pray, because he had to. At one point God directed him to ask for “one soul a day.” It seemed ludicrous in such harsh resistant soil. But John prayed, and God gave him one soul every day for the first year. If at the end of a day, someone had not relented to the wooing of the Gospel, then he would enter his prayer chamber and ask God to point out the sin that kept prayer’s answer at bay. Afterward, he would rise and go the streets to find the one God had prepared. He returned to the states in broken health, and a doctor said, ‘John, your heart has shifted out of its normal position, that’s why you are sick.’ He didn’t tell the doctor what he long suspected, that prolonged and protracted prayer for India’s darkened land, had literally broken his heart.

Lately, I’ve been praying for a new generation of prayer prophets like Livingstone and Hyde, built in the throes of suffering, convinced in the schools of failure, and sent to the front lines. Here, the best they can hope for is a sheet of lead. But that’s why God prepares them.

They are unique. In their heart, no other’s praise affects them, no other’s critique moves them, no other mission tempts them, and no other idol consumes them. That’s because the love of the Gospel has wooed, the vision of the gospel has fed, and the strain of getting the gospel to the world has led them into the arms of Christ. We need not fret over this generation’s preoccupations, or our nation’s moral failures surrounding them. God rests upon a throne, and as we pray, He will send out these young prophets.

What would it look like to hear of a new generation of ‘Fellowship of the Burning Hearts?’ Could it be that God waits for you, and for me to pray to that end? The church needs young men and women with fire. Could God be calling us to ask Him to birth these prophets? Perhaps they aren’t born yet. It doesn’t matter, we must pray anyway. Or, perhaps they are in a cataclysmic struggle over whether they will forsake all, and follow Jesus Christ into the winnowing call to prayer. They may be preachers, or missionaries. They might be doctors, or they could be night watchmen. Regardless of their station, they are aching over a restless urge somewhere too deep to identify, to depart from convention, and follow a Voice.

But here’s the rub. At the same time God is wooing them, a smaller voice, more concrete, and so more enticing, assails them. “You must not walk alone, don’t be too radical, others are watching, so tone it down.” But deep inside they know the right path, and understand they must walk as all prophets do, alone. This is the crisis point over which we must pray. Our land turns a deaf ear, and only prophets with the muster of what the old timers used to call unction, will awaken us all to the One Voice urging return to a ministry of prayer.