The red devil is green with envy

The devil, who in his great malice is envious of all the good he sees in the soul, knowing of her prosperity, now employs all his ability and engages all his crafts to disturb this good, even if only a slight part of it. It is worth more to him to hinder a small fraction of this soul’s rich and glorious delight than to make many others fall into numerous serious sins, for these others have little or nothing to lose; but this soul has very much to lose because of all her precious gain. The loss of a little pure gold is worse than the loss of many other base metals. (John of the Cross, “The Spiritual Canticle,” Commentary on Stanza 16)
Dore_satan falling
 The Fallen Angel by Gustave Dore.  Satan is a bitter loser who envies God’s people.

If you find yourself stewing about how sincere Christians (maybe you) are being hammered by circumstances, toxic thoughts, confusion and other torments, while people who could care less about God’s Word and kingdom seem to skip happily along (Psalm 73), John of the Cross says that the devil doesn’t waste any of his ammo on those who are on the wide, easy path to destruction (Matthew 7:13-14). He concentrates his fire on those he envies, those who are beloved of God and on the narrow path that leads to eternal life, the path that the devil lost and can never regain.

Hang in there. Help, comfort and encourage your brothers and sisters in Christ. The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you (Romans 16:20).

Last words of love and longing

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?  (Psalm 22:1; Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34)

Why, since you wounded this heart, don’t you heal it?  And why, since you stole it from me, do you leave it so, and fail to carry off what you have stolen?  (St. John of the Cross, The Spiritual Canticle, Stanza 9)

I happened to read both of these verses last night.  Yes, there’s an immediate superficial similarity in the pained poetry of lost love and the Psalm of abandonment.  But I think this goes deeper.

John of the Cross uses poetry, heavily influenced by and even sampled from The Song of Songs, to describe the soul’s longing for its (her, in John’s imagery) true love, which is God.  And in his own commentary on this stanza of his poem, he uses the language of death, which intersects with Psalm 22 at the cross.

Commenting on Stanza 9, John writes,

Her [the soul’s] complaint is not that he [God] wounded her – for the more a loving soul is wounded the more its love is repaid – but that in sorely wounding her heart, he did not heal her by slaying her completely. The wounds of love are so sweet and delightful that if they do not cause death they cannot satisfy. Yet they are so delightful that she would want them to wound her sorely until they slay her completely. Consequently she says: “Why, since you wounded this heart, don’t you heal it?” This is equivalent to saying: Why, since you wounded this heart until it has become sorely wounded, do you not heal it by wholly slaying it with love? Since you cause the sore wound in the sickness of love, may you cause health in the death of love. As a result the heart, wounded with the sorrow of your absence, will be healed with the delight and glory of your sweet presence.

John of the Cross’s own sketch of Christ on the Cross.

If this is an accurate observation of the soul devoted to God, then the one perfectly devoted soul, Christ’s,  offers more than a cry of generic human pain or humiliation from the cross.  It is a cry for completion or perfection – that Christ’s painful zeal for God’s will can give way to the death of love that renews the delight and glory of Father and Son in the unity of the Spirit, no longer hindered or obscured by the earthbound body that Jesus accepted to save us.

In this sense, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? moves closer to It is finished (John 19:30) and Father, into your hands I commit my spirit (Luke 23:46).  It is the cry of the lover for the beloved that is finally answered with the delight and glory of the beloved’s sweet presence. 

So it is that Jesus, after crying out the Psalm, endures but a few more moments of useless ministrations from the crowd (this is similar to Stanzas 2 and 6 of the Canticle, which express the futility of intercessors and messengers when unity with God is the soul’s desire), and is slain completely by the wounds of divine love.

We believe that Jesus shares fully in our humanity, and so his cry does capture the universality of suffering and estrangement from God.  But as St. Paul points out, there is crying that ends there in futility, and a different kind of grief that can wail in hope – what John of the Cross lyricises as the longing of the lover for the beloved – of our soul for the God who awaits our arrival.

Don’t miss the miracle

 My footThis coming Sunday’s Gospel has more than one miracle.  Sure, it has the obvious suspension of natural law when flesh-and-blood walks on water toward the end.  But don’t miss the much greater miracle launching right off the top of the lesson,

And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray.

The divine Son of God who can walk on water and calm storms and raise the dead and such has to find privacy to pray.

The great miracle is the Incarnation, best described in John 1:14,

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.

The Son of God – the Word – was not subject to confusion, weakness, exhaustion, rejection, pain, death, or any of the other afflictions known by mortal creatures.

But in the miracle of the Incarnation, the perfection of God is suspended, and the Son of God is clothed with our finite flesh and all that comes with it.

Matthew discloses the miracle in what seems like simple narration of events,

Jesus dismissed the crowds – while in the flesh, the Word who created all things can find his creatures overwhelming and distracting.

he went up on the mountain – while in the flesh, the Son who was in the bosom of the Father (John 1:18) must resort to the primitive human practice of closing the distance to heaven by going to a high place.

by himself – while in the flesh, the One who in the Holy Spirit shares perfect unity with the Father experiences the human reality of separation and isolation.

to pray – while in the flesh, the instantaneous and perpetual love of Father, Son and Spirit is interfered with and the Son must reach out with words of prayer like any mortal.

But these limits under which Jesus operates are only one aspect of the miracle.  Even greater is the love for us that it reveals.

Imagine for a moment that you received the power to live without anything unpleasant ever intruding.  No pain.  No losses.  No disappointments.  No rejections.  Just a constant state of love and joy.

Would you waive that power, once it was yours?

That’s what God does in the miracle of the Incarnation.  The state of perfect love and joy is waived for a season in the flesh, up to and including death, so that those who are in the flesh can come to perfect love and joy with God.

Now wait a minute, you might say, we all sacrifice for those we love.  And you would be right to an extent.  We’re all made in the image of God, and so we can do some miniature imitation of Him.  Our love for others can be sacrificial as we occasionally set aside our pleasures and preferences in order to care for them.

But the fact remains that even at our best, we are not free from the pains of the flesh.  We get sick and tired and we die.  Jesus did not have to endure any of it – he chose it.  He chose us in a great miracle of love, and with us he chose his own suffering and limitation.

So don’t miss the miracle when you hear this Sunday’s Gospel.  Jesus walks on water, but that’s just to highlight the supernatural suspension of glory when he later muddles along alone, lugging the instrument of his execution, screaming of abandonment and dying in the flesh like all of us.

It is his loving choice to do so, and that love is the power through which He, as if pulling sinking Peter out of the lake, will reach into our death and raise us to new and everlasting love and joy.

Maybe, just possibly, good news?

My thoughts this morning were on refreshment, renewal and other such happy life passages.  I was in the perky place because of my dog.  I’d shared the following on Facebook,

Our Black Lab is aging, but last night she had a shining moment of reclaimed youth.

Because it’s so cold, I stand in the garage and let her go out on a 25′ training leash (which never seemed to train her back in the day).

All of a sudden she growls, barks and just about drags me out the door and across the yard.

She’d spotted a deer in the shadows across the street and wanted to go after it. Needless to say, I didn’t let that happen in the subzero night. I restrained her with some effort and we just watched the deer bound away.

But I gave Lily a lot of praise and a treat back in the warm house.

I’m sure she had a great hunting tale to tell the cat.

We have these flashes of the good times now and then.  I was getting ready for Morning Prayer and the Biblical passage about “getting back to your first love” ran through my mind.  Last year, in the midst of some struggles and changes, I got back to my old habit of reading Morning and Evening Prayer (I’ll let the italics do the talking), using a schedule that offers the entire Book of Psalms every month.

It was a return to first love – the privilege and pleasure of time with God instead of capitulation to all of each day’s passing urgencies.  I began to linger in prayer instead of “getting it done.”  I was blessed to wander back into adoration, enjoying the reality and presence of God without any agenda of stuff to fix or fret over.

So what comes up as the New Testament reading this morning?

But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember then from what you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first.  (Revelation 2:4-5)

Now, being who and what I am, I read that with a momentary thought of Wow!  Cool!  but then got down to stressing and straining over what me, myself and I needed to do.  What was it I had abandoned and needed to rediscover?  How could I please God again after falling so far from… from…?

A gentle but terribly subversive awareness intruded.  What if that passage coming up just after I’d been thinking about it (rather, having thoughts about it just before it came up) was an affirmation from God?  What if it was good news via the Holy Spirit from the One who sent his Son into the world to save it?  What if (No!  Stop!  Perish the thought!  Vanity of vanities!) it was God expressing pleasure in me for having accepted His invitation to spend more conscious time with Him?

I realized that my self accusing thoughts were most likely The Accuser’s (that’s what the title Satan – in Hebrew The Satan – means) blather and lies, urging me to seek the good in me, myself and I rather than in the free gift of God.

That 30-day Psalm cycle came to the rescue, as a verse I took with me to bed came back into my mind:

I sought the LORD and he answered me and delivered me from all my terror. Look upon him and be radiant, and let not your faces be ashamed. Psalm 34:4-5


Look upon Him indeed.

Be delivered.

Be radiant.

Be refreshed and renewed.

And don’t be ashamed.

Christmas in May

Sunday morning I drove up the interstate to preach at a storefront church about two hours north of where I live.  I haven’t been at the altar or in the pulpit since last November.  Been recovering from some nasty emotional blows.  So being called back into action by God and God’s people was like a Christmas-in-May present.

In Watertown, South Dakota

On top of that, it was a tourism bureau (or maybe realtors’) dream day here.  The beauty of earth and sky is hard to write up without typing a string of platitudes.

The embrace and perfume of earth and sky was another Christmas-in-May gift.

The Psalm appointed in the Revised Common Lectionary was 96, which included

Let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad; let the sea thunder and all that is in it; let the field be joyful and all that is therein. Then shall all the trees of the wood shout for joy before the Lord when he comes, when he comes to judge the earth. (Psalm 96:11-12)

That Christmas hymn?  You know, the one where “Heav’n and nature sing, and heav’n and nature sing,” etc.?  Like so many of the traditional hymns, it has sound Biblical foundation.

The whole creation rejoices in the Spirit that brought life giving order out of primal chaos; the Father who made it fruitful and called it “good,” and the Son who chose to share it’s suffering under sin and is coming again to make it new forever.

Heav’n and nature sing.  Sky, water, plants and animals recognize and rejoice in the Creator, even as we, the creatures made in His image, ignore Him and pollute the creation with sin.

But the gift is greater, at Christmas, in May or anytime, because the Word through whom all things were made intercedes for us as heav’n and nature lead cheers for His saving work.

The Problem is…

Wedding portrait
May 26, 1990

My wife and I just celebrated our 26th wedding anniversary.

Perhaps the greatest challenge to marriage today is the combination of a) the lack of social respect for it and b) the ironically high expectations placed upon it. We’re told by our betters that it’s just a temporary option yet it is supposed to provide uninterrupted happiness and do magical stuff like turning out perfect kids (or accepting all the blame for any “dysfunction” they manifest).

I found this reflection by Shekhar Abnave (reblogged below after my thoughts) helpful, at least in terms of poking the “perfection” myths.

…there’s no right person, just different flavors of wrong. Why is this? Because you yourself are wrong in some way…

Wow, that’s so on target.

The old “Are we basically good or basically evil?” parlor debate never winds up with a truly Christian answer. We are fallen (rebellious, sinful, evil) creatures who are still loved by our Creator. We are loved. And love isn’t all pretty, romantic stuff, it’s

patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (1 Corinthians 13:4-7 ESV)

In marriage, love isn’t about wrenching our happiness out of our spouses’ souls, it’s about subduing our needy and greedy natures to care for each other,

submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ (Ephesians 5:21 ESV)

because Christ identified himself as a “groom” awaiting our hand in marriage. And he courts us, not with pricey trinkets and good looks, but hanging on a cross and calling us to join him on the sacrificial path that leads there, and from there to true and unending happiness that only God, not our poor, long suffering human spouse, can provide.

Anyway, go read this, and love your spouse as he or she is, please:

shekhar's Digest

“We’re all seeking that special person who is right for us.
But if you’ve been through enough relationships, you begin to suspect
there’s no right person, just different flavors of wrong.
Why is this? Because you yourself are wrong in some way,

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Balaam’s Cat

Bible readers know that the animal story about Balaam involves a donkey (Numbers 22).  God gave the critter power to speak when its master was riding into trouble, a situation set up by Balaam’s forging ahead on his own terms rather than God’s.

Out of physical exhaustion, sloth, moodiness (are those all related?) or something else, I’ve been forging into recent days without the morning prayer and Bible reading that are a precious part of my relationship with God.

When I do start the day in prayer, it’s at our dining room table.  Our dog and cat come and curl up close by, suspending their demands for food and trips outside to let me take in the Word of God and lift my praises and petitions before the problems of the day intrude.

This morning I continued to blow off prayer time and was surfing the internet.  The cat started meowing.  I went into the dining room to see if she was all right and she was rubbing against the legs of the chair where I sit for morning prayer.  It was the affectionate rubbing that she gives my shins before settling down like the Sphinx to let me pray.

I have to admit that I was moved by her antics.  If the prayer time imparts an intangible, positive something that even dumb animals desire, can’t I spare the few minutes?

Unlike Balaam’s donkey, the cat wasn’t sounding a warning.  It wasn’t that God was angry at me for not plopping down to appease him with a morning sacrifice.  Rather, God was reminding me of the good that prayer brings into the creation and, more than this, of the pleasure he takes in his children.

The readings this morning were a great blessing, affirming some new directions I’m taking and also giving guidance in the face of some challenges.

20160524_064559Her duty done, the cat indulged her bird watching hobby.

Did I mention that her name is Sophia, which means wisdom?

Although nothing in this fallen world is pure.  She’s actually named for an object of lust.

Any ways that God is meowing or otherwise calling to you through his creation?  Keep your ears, eyes, other senses and most of all your heart open.