In-between

It is always the liminal spaces, those threshold in-between places in our lives, where old things pass away and new things have yet to emerge, where we face our greatest challenges and have opportunity to experience our greatest learning.

-Mark Chironna

The cold weather fell so suddenly this year that the leaves on the trees in the park did not have time to sing their final, colourful adio. They froze mid-roulade and missed their chance to exit to applause before the audience went home. Now they fall, unnoticed, on the dusty, crusty January snow.

Sometimes seasons march out in a grand finale. Sometimes they slink away slowly, finally noticing their time has passed.

Like the leaves, I am reluctant to let go. At the moment, the potential of the next season feels like a sodden weight of too many options, too many yeah-buts, and too little energy. But this is where the future is born –in quietness and rest. There is a rich feast of wisdom and revelation to be found in this season.

This is the time of the in-between.

The Road Back: Psalms of the Sons of Korah, Be Still and Know

Psalm 46 contains one of my favourite verses for meditation: “Be still and know that I am God.” (verse 10) It also contains a verse that, as a lover of nature, troubles me. “Come behold the works of the Lord, how he has wrought the desolations in the earth.” (verse 8 NIV)

I’ve seen what happens when a mountain crumbles. I’ve driven past Turtle Mountain in the Crowsnest Pass many times. The remaining mountain, standing there by the highway like a badly chipped giant tooth, has been carefully observed for movement since The Slide that destroyed the town of Frank in 1903. I don’t want to be on that road if another chunk comes down.

Translators have had a problem with this verse. The Hebrew word causing the problem is transliterated ‘shammah.’ Comparing translations, it can read: Come and see the desolations, or devastation, awesome works, amazing things, ruins, marvels of God, horrific events, wasteland, places he destroyed, breath-taking wonders… and that’s only in English. Jeremiah used shammah a lot to describe what he foresaw coming to Israel and Judah if they didn’t listen and make a course correction. It wasn’t good for them. “Shock and awe” might be an apt modern paraphrase. And yet, God sent many of his own to plead with the people to change because they were on a dangerous path of self-destruction.

I had a dream. I was in a huge banqueting hall where people had filled their plates with the kind of delicacies we see in advertisements for the finest in cruise cuisine. There was so much fine food that people were skipping nutritious food, taking one bite of each rich pastry and throwing the rest in the garbage. While in the hall, I received a phone call from someone who I knew heard God’s voice more clearly than I did. To make this short, I was arguing with him over the placement of a book in the Bible. Suddenly I heard a very loud gunshot over the phone. It stunned me into silence. I dropped everything and ran to this man’s house expecting to find him dead. He wasn’t. He was sitting in the kitchen. A shotgun leaned against a cupboard.

“You did that!” I exclaimed. “You shot off a gun in my ear. I was in shock! My ears are still ringing! Why would you do something like that?”

“Got your attention, didn’t it? Now are you ready to stop arguing and listen?” he said.

God got my attention too. (The rest of the dream can be found in “Esther in Ephesians” here.)

When I think about it, I remember walking my young son to school. His younger siblings and a couple of other children I was caring for came along, of course. Suddenly our younger son stepped off the sidewalk in pursuit of some distraction. Usually there was no traffic on that road, and he was careful to stay beside me with a hand on the baby carriage, but this time he stepped out on the road just as a vehicle came up behind us. I yanked his arm hard to get him out of danger. I hurt him. He cried, but he was on a dangerous path that could have killed him. A good parent takes that risk when they need a child to pay attention immediately. That was the moment when I realized recurring ear infections left him unable to hear properly and he needed an ear specialist in a bigger city. I went home and made appointments. He now listens for a living.

Recognizing this psalm is about acts of God in the context of national and international conflicts and terrifying battles, changes the way I see it. That it was written by the clan of Korah (identified with one of the most terrifying responses to rebellion in the history of the Children of Israel) means “Be still and know that I am God” (verse10) is not merely a nice platitude. It comes in the middle of a poetic song that remembers that if he needs to, God will open the earth, crumble mountains, make a whip and toss tables, or yank your arm so hard he could dislocate your shoulder to save you from a destructive path if he has to.

But there is another way. I see the assurances when we respond too. He is our help and refuge in trouble. There is no reason to fear (and doesn’t fear provoke us to make some crazy decisions?). There is a river of gladness where God dwells. His voice is greater than the gathered nations’ might. He is the one who stops wars –however he chooses to do it.

In this current time of upheaval, the message of Psalm 46 is vital. It says essentially, let God be God. It may not look like he is coming to straighten things out, but he is –in his time. If you try to usurp his place and take on the role of God yourself, doing things your own way in your own limited wisdom, you are only going to mess up on some essential foundational truths.

Be still. Listen. Stop striving and you will know deeply and intimately who God is.

God is our refuge and strength,
    an ever-present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way
    and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam
    and the mountains quake with their surging.

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
    the holy place where the Most High dwells.
God is within her, she will not fall;
    God will help her at break of day.
Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall;
    he lifts his voice, the earth melts.

The Lord Almighty is with us;
    the God of Jacob is our fortress.

Come and see what the Lord has done,
    the desolations he has brought on the earth.
He makes wars cease
    to the ends of the earth.
He breaks the bow and shatters the spear;
    he burns the shields with fire.


He says, “Be still, and know that I am God;
    I will be exalted among the nations,
    I will be exalted in the earth.”

The Lord Almighty is with us;
    the God of Jacob is our fortress.

A song needs a singer. I love Marty Goetz’ version of Psalm 46.

The Road Back: Psalms of the Sons of Korah, Psalm 44

The road back from rebellion requires courage – emotional courage.

A child can exclaim, “I did it all by myself!” and we are proud of her. But now a lot of us who once exclaimed with pride, “I did it my way!” mumble and limp as regret pulls at our steps and turns us around.

In experimenting with ways other than God’s to sooth our pain and anxiety we have simply discovered alternate methods that work splendidly for a while. Then we realize that our thoughts and actions do affect others, especially the next generation.

In Psalm 44, the Sons of Korah remember the stories they were told of the great days of old. They recognize that those great victories were not just lucky breaks. They were God’s doing.

It was not by their sword that they won the land,
    nor did their arm bring them victory;
it was your right hand, your arm,
    and the light of your face, for you loved them.

You are my King and my God,
    who decrees victories for Jacob.

Through you we push back our enemies;
    through your name we trample our foes.
I put no trust in my bow,
    my sword does not bring me victory;
but you give us victory over our enemies,
    you put our adversaries to shame.
In God we make our boast all day long,
    and we will praise your name forever.
(Psalm 44:3-8 NASB)

But it’s complicated. Most of the rest of the Psalm is a cry for understanding. Why would God do this? Here we had things figured out and now he takes us into circumstances where the formulas of the old agreement don’t seem to hold up. The deal was this: we follow the rules and you, God, favour us and give us victory in everything. What are you doing? Where are you?

They protest their innocence:

All this came upon us,
    though we had not forgotten you;
    we had not been false to your covenant.
Our hearts had not turned back;
    our feet had not strayed from your path.
But you crushed us and made us a haunt for jackals;
    you covered us over with deep darkness.
(verses 17-19)

What if this is more than a trading relationship? What if God wants us to wrestle with him? What if the only way to go deeper into understanding his heart is to expose ours even if it means beating on his chest in frustration? What if the victory he wants us to experience is not just victory over our rivals, but victory over the enemy whose every moment is absorbed with schemes and distractions to keep us from our Creator — and the consequences of our choices to follow him. What if real victory requires real accounting and expression of real pain without defensiveness? What if God wants to root out the lies that separated us from him in the first place? What if he wants to rid us of self-reliance and pride?

What if facing those scary dark corners of our lives feels too much like being out of control? What if it feels like stepping off a plank balanced on the peak of whatever accomplishments we have gained in life and taking the risk of plummeting into the pit of despair?

But what if this dark night of the soul is the road to the light of his face?

Psalm 44 is a difficult read for those of us who want assurances and pretty promises of a healthy, prosperous life with perfect families, material wealth, and a great reputation to wave in the face of our detractors. What do we do with gut-wrenching cries like this?

I live in disgrace all day long,
    and my face is covered with shame
at the taunts of those who reproach and revile me,
    because of the enemy, who is bent on revenge.
(verses 15 and 16)

Dare we join the Sons of Korah who are also the Sons of Israel? God renamed Jacob (the supplanter) who had relied on sneaky ways to become a self-made man. After he dislocated his hip giving Jacob a permanent limp, the angel of the Lord told him his new name was Israel — “one who wrestles with God.” Dare we wrestle with God ourselves, crying out to him for help when nothing makes sense in any construct we can come up with on our own?

Awake, Lord! Why do you sleep?
    Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever.
Why do you hide your face
    and forget our misery and oppression?

We are brought down to the dust;
    our bodies cling to the ground.
Rise up and help us;
    rescue us because of your unfailing love.
(verses 23-25)

What if, for some people, the way down is the way up?

The Road Back: Psalms of the Sons of Korah Part 1

I love the Psalms. I love them because they show us how to be real with our feelings, appreciate the colour they add to our lives, and still see self-governance (a fruit of the spirit) in operation instead of being ruled by them. 

I used to assume that most psalms were composed by David on the run, or David on the throne, or David in the tent of worship. It wasn’t until someone suggested I pay attention to the Psalms of the Sons of Korah that I started to notice other writers. The Sons of Korah have a story. Their psalms show us the way back from rebellion and an identity of inherited shame. How did these men move from sentiments like “I am counted among those who go down to the pit,” to “Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere?”

The story of Korah, and his co-conspirators Dathan, Abiram and On is hard for me to read. It messes with my theology and reminds me to keep asking questions. We find it in Numbers 16.

The Children of Israel had chosen to be more impressed with scary stories of giants than Joshua’s and Caleb’s good reports. Moses gave the grumbling people God’s message that although their children would see the promised land, they themselves would not. That’s when Korah and his friends (and the 250 men they convinced to join them) protested. They accused Moses of breaking promises and of wanting to make himself a prince over the people and use them like slaves.

Korah wanted a higher position, a greater place of honour than he had been assigned as a server in the tabernacle. Like satan, pride and ambition were his downfall. He argued it was not the people’s fault they were stuck in this desert. He insisted they were holy people and not disobedient complainers. Moses was wrong and it was his mismanagement causing the hardships and disappointments.

It’s not as if Korah and his friends had not seen God at work. The people witnessed the miraculous escape from Pharoah’s army, Moses’ face glowing after being with God, the shock and awe show on Mt. Sinai, a pillar of smoke by day and fire by night, miraculous provision of food and water, clothes that never wore out and many more events way beyond anything seen before. They had also witnessed the consequences of worshipping a golden calf and leprosy appear on Miriam when she and her brother Aaron tried to usurp Moses’ place as leader.  

Over time, people like Korah tend to shrug off such demonstrations of power. He wanted control. Moses accused the protestors of wanting to be priests like Aaron. There was a brief trial with God as judge. The consequence of the guilty verdict was that they and their families were separated from the others and swallowed by the earth.

I have questions. This messes with my picture of a God of love. All I’ll say about that for now is that Asaph, an associate musician who served one of the Sons of Korah, wrote this: But my people still would not yield to me, so I lifted my grace from off their lives and I surrendered them to the stubbornness of their hearts. (Psalm 81:11)

It’s recorded in Numbers 26:11 that “… nevertheless the line of Korah did not end.” Some must have separated themselves from Korah because there were survivors who, although perpetually identified with the shame of being descendants, show up later in a genealogy in 1 Chronicles 6:22-26. Samuel the prophet was one.

Samuel showed up at a time of transition in history and served in the tabernacle from a very young age. Eventually he was granted by grace the role his forefather tried to take by force. The era of judges was over. He anointed first Saul, then David as king.

David had a heart for God like few before him. He erected a tent of praise and appointed Heman, Samuel’s grandson and others from the Korah clan as musicians. They continued in that role when the temple was built by David’s son, Solomon.

Why would this group of poets call themselves the Sons of Korah? It would be like a contemporary praise and worship band calling themselves The Sons of Hitler in my culture. What were they showing us? Heman wrote the saddest psalm in the Bible.

In Psalm 88 we can read the words of a man raised in a shame/honour culture who still identifies with the rejection settled on his family line. It is an expression of their pain.

I am counted among those who go down to the pit;
    I am like one without strength.
I am set apart with the dead,
    like the slain who lie in the grave,
whom you remember no more,
    who are cut off from your care.

You have put me in the lowest pit,
    in the darkest depths
.

He ends with:

Your wrath has swept over me;
    your terrors have destroyed me.
 All day long they surround me like a flood;
    they have completely engulfed me.
 You have taken from me friend and neighbor—
    darkness is my closest friend.

In a shame/honour society (which many people in the west don’t realize ours is becoming) tribal identity determines destiny. He is rejected as one of those outsiders marked by the shame that labels his family. He cries to God for help, but his identity is still as a son of Korah.

This is the only psalm in which there is no expression of hope of relief at the end. That changes in other Psalms.

So why has my attention been drawn to the Psalms of the Sons of Korah? I believe we have come to another shift in history that requires a shift in mindset, a time of re-alignment. For some of us, that will require receiving a new identity and seeing ourselves as God sees us. It means exchanging shame for restoration and rejection for belonging in God’s family.

We can’t move on until we let go. The wilderness experience is about learning to change our mindsets and let go of the ways of Egypt. There is more to life in the Kingdom of God than we have known before, but it will take time and a willingness to cooperate in the process of letting the Holy Spirit change us.

We are about to learn, on a deeper level, how much Jesus Christ has done for us and how much we are loved as we travel the road back to where we belong.

Do You Love Me?

It’s been about thirty years since I gave up. I gave up trying to please God, or perhaps more accurately, to please God according to the job list people who put themselves in charge of the Pleasing God Committee gave me.

I quit trying, but I quit with a question: So, God, if I don’t do any of this stuff, if I walk away from trying so hard, will you still love me, or is your love conditional?

I’m a slow and stubborn learner and I had erected a lot of self-protective barriers. Wounded people do that. But God has grace and patience beyond — way beyond — anything I could imagine based on what I could drum up myself.

Since that time, his kindness and faithfulness have won my heart. He met me in the desert. He wooed me, or as Hosea wrote about God’s actions toward the unfaithful wife symbolizing a nation that went after every pleasure but God, he “allured” me. Like the woman in the desert, I eventually responded with my own song of love.

Now, all these years later, I hear him asking me the question. “If I don’t give you what you want when you want it, will you still love me, or is your love conditional?”

There are a lot of things I want, and as the beloved of the King of Kings am entitled to. I want good health. I want financial security. I want my children and grandchildren to have easy lives and a great relationship with God. I want my city and my country to prosper. Most of all, I want to be understood.

As I ponder, I remember this is the question posed to many people in the Bible from Abraham with his precious promised son, to Job with his wealth and healthy family, to Solomon with his fine mind and reputation, to Jesus himself who laid down the right to the recognition and worship owed him.

Like Peter, I remember the night of denial. “Jesus is ok,” I said, “But I don’t trust God the Father not to use me, then throw me away.”

Like Peter on the beach with Jesus, with the scent of a charcoal fire in the air to remind him of the night of denial, I hear the question. “Do you love me for who I am and not just for what I give you?”

I know my weaknesses. I know how easily the rug is still pulled out from under me when I feel harshly criticized or misunderstood. I know that in my own strength I can’t say yes.

I also know that his strength is made perfect in weakness. I also know that he gives me his love so I have something to give back to him. Everything comes from him, and in him and through him I live and move and have my being.

Yesterday the words from a song sung by Celine Dion played in my dreams:

You were my strength when I was weak.
You were my voice when I couldn’t speak.
You were my eyes when I couldn’t see.
You saw the best there was in me.
Lifted me up when I couldn’t reach.
You gave me faith ’cause you believed.
I’m everything I am
Because you loved me

This morning I was singing a song in my spirit. The words come from Psalm 73 which, in the New Living Testament, reads:

Whom have I in heaven but you?
    I desire you more than anything on earth.
My health may fail, and my spirit may grow weak,
    but God remains the strength of my heart;
    he is mine forever.

Himself

If we are in Christ the whole basis of our goings is God, not conceptions of God, not ideas of God, but God Himself. We do not need any more ideas about God, the world is full of ideas about God. They are all worthless, because the ideas of God in anyone’s head are of no more use than our own ideas. What we need is a real God, not more ideas about Him.

-Oswald Chambers

Moment By Moment

The reality of living by faith as though we were already dead, of living by faith in open communion with God, and then stepping back into the external world as though we are already raised from the dead, this is not once for all, it is a matter of moment-by-moment faith and living moment by moment. This morning’s faith will never do for this noon. The faith of this noon will never do for suppertime. The faith of suppertime will never do for the next morning. Thank God for the reality for which we were created, a moment-by-moment communication with God himself.

-Francis Schaeffer

Even When Bad Things Happen

I am thankful for Facebook. There. I said it. (I’ll skip the ubiquitous qualifying note here because this is about what I am thankful for.) Today I am simply thankful for the “Memories” feature. I keep a journal, but not like my dear aunt who kept daily records of weather, newsworthy events, and activities that included extended family members. Someone needed to keep track of my adventurous Grandmother’s whereabouts.

I write in my journal about ideas, dreams and visions, observations, questions, word studies, encouraging sayings, potential projects, scripture passages that catch my attention, prayers, and concerns (aka obsessive worries). Some days I write nothing. The blank page may be the consequence of busyness or idleness – or worries on repeat. It may be because I am avoiding processing something that messes with my theology or reveals lies I have told myself. Consistent with my meandering ways, my journal is like a disorganized collection of sticky notes inside a cover. Sometimes I post these thoughts somewhere in a gesture meant to ask readers, “Do you know what I mean? Am I the only one?”

Facebook Memories organizes my random posts by date. I can see where I was on the journey in mid-July from year to year. It allows me to check progress and notice patterns. I am surprised by how often the same topics appear around the same time of year. What truly surprised me this week was how often I have faced serious challenges (aka utterly terrifying Oh God Oh God Oh God days) in mid-July. It’s like my personal Tish B’av, the traditional time of disastrous occurrences in Jewish history.

Stories from the past fourteen years that showed up in Memories this week:

  • My friend’s child was killed when a tire blew on their vehicle while the family was on vacation.
  • In the midst of helping my father downsize for his reluctant move to an assisted living suite, I received word that my husband was extremely ill with a pancreas that was digesting itself and he would need to be flown to another city for emergency surgery.
  • A friend of a friend lay dying in hospital from sepsis. He wasn’t expected to make it through the night.
  • My daughter-in-law posted a photo of muddy belongings removed from their flood-ravaged house and piled in the street for removal by dump truck.
  • I was making the rounds between radioactive claustrophobia-inducing scans and specialist surgeons and anesthetists in different cities finding out that the “little tumour in my tummy” was going to be much more complicated to remove than I was first told.
  • I was recovering from surgery on my toe which, bizarrely, was more handicapping and painful than the cancer symptoms at that moment.
  • My friend’s child’s heart stopped on the operating table while undergoing surgery for severe lung infection in a country on the other side of the world. Doctors revived him, but his prognosis was very poor.
  • My two precious grandchildren and their equally precious parents parted for their new home on other side of the continent. I did not know how long it would be before I would see them again.
  • We spent a traumatic day in yet another hospital watching my husband’s younger brother suffocate to death from lung cancer.
  • My friend was in constant agony after an accident five years earlier. After begging him for help, a surgeon was willing to try one more thing.
  • I was in the fourth month of a five-month long “atypical” headache. It left me unable to travel or do much of anything but learn to moan quietly.
  • Injury to my knees and arthritis in multiple joints made it difficult to live in our house with stairs or tend the garden or go for hikes in the mountain forests I loved. We knew we needed to move, but I couldn’t work longer than ten minutes at a time to downsize and prepare the house for sale. The task felt overwhelming.

As I looked back, this part of Psalm 34 came to mind: “The Lord is close to all whose hearts are crushed by pain, and he is always ready to restore the repentant one. Even when bad things happen to the good and godly ones, the Lord will save them and not let them be defeated by what they face.

July may be my traditional disaster month, but it is also the month of learning dependence on God and watching him come through for me — and the people I love. Remembering how God came to our rescue after the event is so much easier than feeling the shock and pain of the moment when bad news plops itself on the doorstep.

Sometimes answers to prayer come quickly. Sometimes it takes so long it feels like God’s whereabouts are unknown and I can’t call my aunt to tell me where he is now. Sometimes the challenge itself is an answer to prayer because we’ve gained skills and the ability to endure through perseverance and deeper faith in God’s faithfulness. Sometimes the situation is the means to open our eyes to how God sees us and his confidence in us. Sometimes challenges result in better definitions of success than we assumed before.

  • The friend of a friend with sepsis, the child on life-support, and the woman with severe back pain were all healed within days. My husband’s dire condition suddenly improved and he didn’t need surgery after all. The problem never came back.
  • With a lot of work and help from people who demonstrated practical love, our son’s family’s house was restored to better than new condition within two years.
  • The tumour in my gut (and other places the cancer had spread to) were removed without complication and there has been no progression for five years. The toe is still attached and doing its job. The doctor prescribed a medication that successfully prevents the headaches from starting.
  • Our grandchildren and their mother visited us this week after 941 days of separation.
  • Many wonderful friends stepped in to help us move. We sold our house before it was even listed to a couple who will continue to fill it with songs of praise to a good, good Father.
  • A man I met from a country where Christians face death from persecutors daily said, “You Christians in North America sing about the joy of being with Jesus and meeting him in Paradise, but none of you seem to be willing to go there. We rejoice for those who now know what eternal life looks like from a higher place. My father, my friend’s son, and my brother-in-law were trusting Christ to be their saviour. I believe they are all happy and healed in the presence of the Lord. I’ve learned that God heals the broken-hearted and grants peace.

The life of a Jesus-follower is not always easy. He said we could expect the same kind of reception he had. We can also expect the teaching and discipline of a good Father who knows the difference between love and indulgence. If we want Jesus’ peace that passes understanding, there will be times we have to relinquish the right to understand.

I’m facing challenges again in this month of July, 2022. For the sake of privacy of others involved I will just say this much: I agree with Paul’s prayer for myself, for my loved ones, and for you: “… I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 1:5 – 6 NIV)

Yet when holy lovers of God cry out from all their troubles

The Lord is close to all whose hearts are crushed by pain,

and he is always ready to restore the repentant one.

Even when bad things happen to the good and godly ones,

the Lord will save them and not let them be defeated

by what they face.

(Psalm 34:17-19 TPT)