But God is a shield around me

Psalm 3:1-3; 5:11-12 O Lord, I have so many enemies; so many are against me . . . But you, O Lord, are a shield around me; you are my glory, the one who holds my head high. . . Let all who take refuge in you rejoice; let them sing joyful praises forever. Spread your protection over them, that all who love your name may be filled with joy. For you bless the godly, O Lord; you surround them with your shield of love.

I have a friend who is going through an unbelievably tough time right now. She has a condition that prevents her from doing everything she is passionate about. It’s not at all clear yet whether this will ever heal or change. I noticed when talking with her this week that she feels her true battlefield is inside her own mind, fighting enemies like despair, anxiety, panic, and futility. And loneliness, because she basically can’t leave her home right now.

She is one who often in the past encouraged others (including me, I reminded her, in some of my tough times with Karis). Now she wonders whether that was all fake, a kind of hypocrisy, since she feels she’s not doing well in her own struggles. She doesn’t think she’s a good model of the trust in God she recommended to others.

Isn’t that just like the enemy, to “play dirty,” to punch us when we’re down, to know exactly where we’re vulnerable, where he can hurt us most? We, her friends, can help her trust in God’s shield of love as we surround her and fight for her in prayer. Not just one or two of us, but many of us, can help her hold her head high. We can do this because she is humble enough to admit she needs our help, that this battle is too big for her to manage alone.

I’ve mentioned before a tough time in my own struggle, when I confessed to a pastor that I didn’t feel able to trust God. Instead of judging, condemning, exhorting, or criticizing me (as I was already doing to myself), he said, “Then it’s time for the Body of Christ to have faith for you.”

Who do you know who needs you to help shield him or her from the attacks of the enemy? In what ways do you need God’s protection through the Body of Christ?

But God is rich in unfailing love

Nehemiah 9:16-17 Our ancestors were proud and stubborn, and they paid no attention to your commands . . . But you are a God of forgiveness, gracious and merciful, slow to become angry, and rich in unfailing love. You did not abandon them.

I’m attending the St Davids  Christian Writers’ Conference in Grove City, PA. This morning Sue, the devotional speaker, told us a wonderful story that I want to share with you. It’s the story behind the third verse of the hymn, “The Love of God.” The third verse goes like this:

Could we with ink the ocean fill, and were the skies of parchment made,

Were ev’ry stalk on earth a quill, and ev’ry man a scribe by trade,

To write the love of God above, would drain the ocean dry;

Nor could the scroll contain the whole, tho’ stretched from sky to sky.

              (Chorus) O love of God, how rich and pure! How measureless and strong!

              It shall forever more endure, the saints’ and angels’ song.

Frederick M. Lehman wrote the first two verses of this hymn in 1917, but he got stuck on verse three—and a proper hymn needed to have three stanzas! After some time, a man brought him the words above, which had been discovered scratched on the wall behind the bed of an asylum patient who had died.

As it turned out, the words had actually been penned long before, in Germany between 1050 and 1100 AD. Henry IV had declared himself a Holy Roman Emperor. But it’s one thing to decide you want to be ruler of the world, and it’s another to convince everyone else. Henry needed a cause, something dramatic that would make him famous. His advisers suggested they mount their own “Crusade” right there in Germany, to extinguish the Jewish population. (Yes: horrifying anti-Semitism way back then!).

Henry decided to meet with the chief rabbi, Rabbi Meir. “Give me a reason not to destroy your people,” he demanded. Rabbi Meir went home and wrote ninety two-line couplets, including what would become centuries later the third verse of “The Love of God.”

Henry was so impressed with Rabbi Meir’s work that he canceled his “Crusade” against the Jews. Since then, Rabbi Meir’s ninety couplets are still used in Jewish worship.

Today, you and I too can celebrate the great love of God, who is a God of forgiveness, gracious and merciful, slow to become angry, and rich in unfailing love. He does not abandon us!

But God has given the earth to all humanity

Psalm 115:1, 11, 14-18 Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your name goes all the glory for your unfailing love and faithfulness . . . All you who fear the Lord, trust the Lord! He is your helper and your shield . . . May the Lord richly bless both you and your children. May you be blessed by the Lord, who made heaven and earth. The heavens belong to the Lord, but he has given the earth to all humanity. . . . We can praise the Lord both now and forever!

I’m reading a novel about the civil war, written from the perspective of the confederacy. It includes a sermon by a preacher defending as biblical the institution of slavery, as obvious as the inferiority of the Irish and of women. And it details the atrocities committed by the Federalists as they completely lost sight of any goal other than utterly destroying their enemy, their fellow Americans. In the novel, the twelve-year-old protagonist wonders how the idea of fighting for Union matches the fact that the soldiers in their brutality were teaching the South to hate them.

Yikes! Amid the echoes of this same loss of perspective in our political discourse today, Psalm 115 feels to me this morning like a breath of bracing fresh air. God has given the earth to all humanity. We are meant to steward it, and share it, not to fight over it like spoiled kids who think they are the center of the universe or by rights ought to be. Over and over again this beautiful psalm points us away from our idolatry and back to the Lord who, when we celebrate the fact that He—who profoundly loves each one of us!—is the center of the universe. He can put us back on track and pour out his blessings. “He will bless those who fear the Lord, both great and lowly” (verse 13). I don’t have to be “great,” whatever I think that means, to be blessed by the Lord! In fact, Jesus taught that it is the “lowly” who can most enjoy God’s favor.

He loves each one of us so much! He wants so much to bless us! Can we stop spouting nonsense and stop fighting and hurting each other, and turn back to trusting the Lord to be our helper and protector and provider? Can I?

OK. I’m climbing down from my soapbox now. I never have been good at keeping my balance up there.


But the Holy Spirit speaks

Mark 13:9-11 You will stand trial before governors and kings because you are my followers. But this will be your opportunity to tell them about me. For the Good News must first be preached to all nations. But when you are arrested and stand trial, don’t worry in advance about what to say. Just say what God tells you at that time, for it is not you who will be speaking, but the Holy Spirit.

This summer on Wednesday evenings at our house a group of friends are gathering to study the book God Space by Doug Pollock. Last week somehow the discussion included martyrs. One of our friends offered this intriguing perspective: that the martyrs faced all at one time in a concentrated way the type of opposition that many believers deal with in milder ways throughout their lifetimes. In both cases, she said, the key is dependence on the Holy Spirit. And what matters is communicating who Jesus is so that the focus is on him, not on us. The Holy Spirit will always glorify Jesus.

This made me think of Jesus as he was dying asking the Father to forgive his murderers. And Stephen in similar fashion with his last breath shouted, “Lord, don’t charge them with this sin!” (Acts 7:60). That’s a life completely empowered by the Holy Spirit.

How did Stephen get to that place of strength and courage and compassion? We don’t know much about him, but when he was chosen to be one of the seven first deacons, Luke tells us he was a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit (Act 6:5). Later in the same chapter, he is described as “full of God’s grace and power, performing amazing miracles and signs among the people” (Acts 6:8). Those who tried to debate him couldn’t stand against the “wisdom and the Spirit with which Stephen spoke” (Acts 6:10).

My takeaway is that I need to develop spiritual muscles by daily submitting to the Holy Spirit, seeking intentionally to keep my life free of whatever might hinder or block his freedom in my life. That way I don’t have to be afraid of encounters big or small that might at any time feel threatening. Or at least, I can admit my fears, offer them to the Lord, and receive through the Spirit his peace and love in their place—love that extends even to those who might want to do me harm. That is “Spiritnatural”!

But Jesus baptizes with the Holy Spirit and with fire

Matthew 3:11-17 (Mark 1:7-8, Luke 3:16) [John the Baptist said] “I baptize with water those who repent of their sins and turn to God. But someone is coming soon who is greater than I am—so much greater that I’m not worthy even to be his slave and carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” . . . Then Jesus went from Galilee to the Jordan River to be baptized by John . . . As Jesus came up out of the water, the heavens were opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and settling on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my dearly loved Son, who brings me great joy.”

On April 30 2002, the week before her 19th birthday, Karis attempted a description of her life in Brazil prior to Notre Dame:

I used to be strong. I used to be disciplined. And pure. I would spend each morning and night alone with God in my room, window open, pure, free, overflowing. I would dance far from mirrors. In a very different way, with my whole heart in it, unashamed. I would pray for many people, visit them, make things for them. I and my Father, my God, were very close. The Holy Spirit would speak with me. My work was done with joy. I dreamed huge. I hurt much but it never crushed my spirit. I almost never cried. I could never express enough joy. I brought much joy to my parents, I was the door my sisters took into the world, I was my brother’s companion.

And a couple of weeks later, in May 2002:

I don’t drink. I don’t need to in order to drown frustrations of emptiness or melancholy—don’t need to in order to become wildly joyous and do ridiculous things—don’t need to in order to be soul-close and together with people, to find a reason to laugh or something to be proud of, or even in order to be sick. Don’t need to be freed up from inhibitions. The Holy Spirit drowns, comforts, fills, frees. I get drunk on Him.

Love (expressed in many different ways), and freedom, and joy, and intimacy. That’s how Karis described her experience of the Holy Spirit. Reading all that into the Acts 2 account of Pentecost (where some people thought the believers were drunk!) gives it a different emotional tone from what is explicitly described, but it feels so right to me.

Our long-time worship minister, Jeanne Kohn, chose Pentecost for the day she would officially retire. What a celebration! Besides a couple of spontaneous praise songs introduced along the way, Jeanne planned 22 pieces of music into the service, drawing from a whole variety of worship traditions. (I was struck by this in part because Jeanne did the same for Karis’s memorial service: 22 pieces of music graced that service as well!)

I wish I could share them all with you, but here is one that captures the love, and freedom, and joy, and intimacy the Holy Spirit creates and facilitates in us and among us, an intertwining dance of Father, Son, and Spirit, “I Cannot Dance, O Love.” Here’s the version I found online:

But Jesus waits

Hebrews 10:10-18 God’s will was for us to be made holy by the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ, once for all time. Under the old covenant, the priest stands and ministers before the altar day after day, offering the same sacrifices again and again, which can never take away sins. But our High Priest [Jesus] offered himself to God as a single sacrifice for sins, good for all time. Then he sat down in the place of honor at God’s right hand. There he waits until his enemies are humbled and made a footstool under his feet. For by that one offering he forever made perfect those who are being made holy. . . And when sins have been forgiven, there is no need to offer any more sacrifices.

In anticipation of celebrating the pouring out of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, I’ve been reading Scriptures about waiting. This one caught my attention, because it’s not us who are waiting. It’s Jesus. He’s sitting in the place of honor at God’s right hand waiting for his enemies to be defeated.

Doesn’t it seem like he should be out fighting his enemies, instead of just . . . sitting and waiting?

Thinking about this, several incidents flashed through my mind. Doctors say to us, “All that can be done has been done.” We ask, “So what happens next?” And they say, “We sit and wait.”

Karis ICU w Deb and Dan (2)

Dan and I waiting . . . after Karis’s seizures and brain bleed in 2009

Aargh! If you’ve been in a situation like that, you know it feels like the toughest thing in the world. Give me something to DO!! But there’s nothing left to do. It’s all been done. Now, we just wait. Either the antibiotics will defeat the bad bugs before all her systems fail—or they won’t. Either the swelling and bleeding in her brain will go down–or it won’t. Either God wants her here with us a little bit longer—or he doesn’t.

That’s the whole point of this passage, isn’t it. Everything that could be done has been done. There’s nothing more for Jesus to do. He’s done it. Now he sits and waits to see whether we accept his incredible sacrifice, given willingly out of profound love for us. There’s nothing we can do except receive his gift. And that’s how his enemies are defeated, one by one—the enemies that have held us captive, but that he already conquered on the cross.

Psalm 110, that this passage quotes, was apparently a favorite among the New Testament writers and preachers, because they refer to it often. That means this concept—that everything that needed to be done has been done—was very important to them. Yet I so often want to add something to what has already been done. I want to make more sacrifices. I want to try to save myself. I want to somehow earn favor with God; then I’ll have something to be proud of. I’ll think I’m somehow more worthy.

As High Priest, Jesus sat down because there was only one sacrifice to be made, and he had made it. He had completed his work. The ball’s in our court now. Will we accept his gift, or keep trying to save ourselves?

But the Father promised a gift

Acts 1:3-5 Jesus appeared to the apostles over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God. On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”

Waiting is built into the medical system. Hospitals, clinics, doctors’ offices all have spaces set apart just for waiting. If you’re a transplant patient or family member, waiting becomes a major part of your life. You can either endure it—go into a sort of mental lala land when you walk through the door of a waiting room—or you can choose to make those endless, uncountable hours count.

Karis, of course, chose the latter. For her, waiting rooms were ideal spaces for connecting significantly with other patients and their families or friends.

But there was another sort of waiting that was much harder for us to manage: the wait for a transplant call. We went through this twice, the first time for eight months, and the second time for about seven months, knowing she might not survive that wait. But of course we didn’t know how long the wait would be. It’s so much easier to wait when you know it will be “about 45 minutes.” Or “just a couple more hours until we arrive at our destination.” Or, as Jesus so graciously told his disciples, only “a few days.”

Since Karis and I had no idea when the call might come, we woke up each morning thinking, “It could be today!” That daily possibility limited us. Had we known it would be eight months, we could have made all kinds of plans. We could have traveled, taken on projects or jobs or classes, rather than continue day after day after day in this limbo of waiting.

At least, that’s what we told ourselves. The reality was that Karis wasn’t well enough to commit herself to much of anything. She volunteered to be an after-school tutor, but only managed to do it twice in a couple of months, thus more of a liability than a help, leaving her assigned child in the lurch. She applied for a fast-food job, but wasn’t able to complete even one shift. She tried online translation jobs, but failed to make the deadlines. How many times can one say, “Sorry, I was in the ICU”? She tried taking community college courses, but missed too many classes to make the experience worthwhile.

This uncertain waiting time deeply affected me, too. I had left a very busy, productive life in Brazil to suddenly find myself just—waiting. Waiting in a foreign-for-us city. Caring for Karis in her ups and downs, ins and outs from the hospital. Figuring out a day at a time what she was well enough to do that morning, or that afternoon. One of the hardest things for me was the fact that I had left behind in Brazil a just-turned-sixteen-year-old daughter, whose father traveled constantly and was not able to provide her a stable sense of home. What was God doing? Was I in the right place, doing the right things? What about all the important commitments I had left behind in Brazil? I didn’t know who I was, or how I fit in this new place, other than as an appendage of Karis.

During that time, God’s promises became very important to me, especially this one: “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” And this: “NOTHING can ever separate us from God’s love. . . neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow.”

Ironically, when everything started going wrong after Karis’s first transplant, I found myself wishing we could go back to that waiting time. I wished we could have waited a little longer, until an organ came along that was a better match for Karis’s immune system, though I don’t know how that could have been discerned. I try to remember, now, when I’m waiting for something, that I don’t want to cut the waiting time short, if it means the outcome will be less optimal than it could be were I more patient. “In the fullness of time,” that old-fashioned phrase from the King James version in Galatians and Ephesians, that’s what I want in regard to the big stuff. Not stress or pressure or rush, but trust.

This week, as liturgically I wait with the disciples for the promised gift of the Holy Spirit poured out on Pentecost, I want to practice trust in each area that has me waiting on God. Will you join me in asking for the gift of trust for those things it seems God is being slow to respond to in your life?