Tag Archives: love

Abba

As a Christian Education and Ministry major (the best decision of sophomore year), I have the privilege of going to department chapel in the Billy Graham Center museum. We meet in the rotunda, a dimly lit circle where we congregate to worship, pray, and listen to a 30-minute message, tailored to us as CE students. It’s one of my favorite chapels of the semester. Although, it should be; if any department would know how to do chapel right, it’s the one devoted entirely to cultivating spiritual formation in students.

Last semester, our chapel speaker was an education professor who works with special needs students. He is also a messianic Jew. Drawing from his roots, he spoke on the shema and the significance behind that prayer. It was a beautiful talk, but then again, we have lots of those at a place like Wheaton College. You could say we’re a little spoiled when it comes to the breadth and variety with which we hear and engage the Gospel.

While what he said was interesting and thoroughly presented, and I still have his beautifully printed handout hanging on my wall, months later I don’t remember the specifics of what he said. It wasn’t the uniqueness of his message that touched on a deep heartstring. It was how, or better yet where, he delivered it from. He sat in the middle of the rotunda circle. Sat, not stood. He planted his PhD, tenured professor rear end in the middle of a circle of undergraduate students because that is where his son was sitting. This professor had brought his entire family along to chapel, a wife and several kids. They helped him lead worshipped and proceeded to work on felting craft projects as their dad spoke. All except for the youngest.

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Probably two years old, the youngest little boy, with his curly blonde hair and toddling legs, found himself thoroughly amused with the marble slab in the center of the rotunda. Toddling on unstable legs, he’d dance around a bit until losing his footing and falling over. A little crying, a little laughing would ensue in the distracting show that this little fellow was putting on. The undergrad students were giggling under their breath too. The irony of hearing about this reverent prayer on God’s holiness, albeit a communal one, was not lost on us students.

Growing up in contexts where kids are often viewed as nuances or distractions, I was subconsciously prepared for one of two responses: either this professor would just ignore the shenanigans of his child, waiting until he got bored with being the center of attention and rejoined his older siblings (all the while, secretly hoping students would retain something from his presentation that we obviously weren’t focused on) OR he’d motion to his wife to take the unruly child out of the room (another classic response in my heteronormative church experiences).

Yet, this professor did something that I hadn’t anticipated. He went and sat down next to his child. Putting his arm around the squirmy two-year old, the education professor shifted his tone, his attention, and his gaze to his child. Speaking in smaller words, looking at his son, he began directing parts of his talk towards the two year old. Words about God’s love for us. His nature as One. The call to bind His words on their bodies and doorposts.

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It was in that moment I understood the shema like no lecturer had explained it before. No longer was I focused on the words or the Hebrew, but I was getting a tangible example of what it looks like to be loved by the God of the universe. To have Him come and sit next to me in my mess – with all it’s joy and all it’s pain. To have Him speaking both to the entire nation, entire body, entire community and to just me simultaneously.

Because the Lord, our God, the I Am who I Am, is also our Abba. And he loves us so very, very much. It’s not always about my deep processing or fully understanding all that He’s doing – sometimes, in my desperate, and often prideful attempts for Him to notice me, to be pleased with me, He invites me to just be with Him. To just be near my Abba because at the end of the day, that’s all my soul is really aching for.

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I’ve been reading through the Bible over the past few months, but during the past week of spring break, I took a little hiatus. Galavanting across Europe and changing hostels every night made it hard to find moments alone with the Lord, much less in a state where I was awake enough to pay attention to a text. With the phrase “your love, Lord, reaches to the heavens, your faithfulness stretches to the skies” stuck in my head, I decided I’d spend the next week meditating on whatever psalm that was from. It would be a nice change of pace from my four chapters of Old Testament a day (currently in the middle of Numbers) and manageable, given the pace of our travels.

Turns out, that phrase is from Psalm 36.

1 I have a message from God in my heart concerning the sinfulness of the wicked: There is no fear of God before their eyes.

2 In their own eyes they flatter themselves too much to detect or hate their sin.

3 The words of their mouths are wicked and deceitful; they fail to act wisely or do good.

4 Even on their beds they plot evil; they commit themselves to a sinful course and do not reject what is wrong.

5 Your love, Lord, reaches to the heavens, your faithfulness to the skies.

6 Your righteousness is like the highest mountains, your justice like the great deep. You, Lord, preserve both people and animals.

7 How priceless is your unfailing love, O God! People take refuge in the shadow of your wings.

8 They feast on the abundance of your house; you give them drink from your river of delights.

9 For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light.

10 Continue your love to those who know you, your righteousness to the upright in heart.

11 May the foot of the proud not come against me, nor the hand of the wicked drive me away.

12 See how the evildoers lie fallen— thrown down, not able to rise!

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St. Anton, Austria

The first time I read through this psalm, curled up on my borrowed sheets in a Brussels hostel, I found myself skimming down to verse five. After all, what had initially drawn me to this chapter was the call back to the Lord’s unfailing love. As I continued reading, I was captivated by the imagery of the highest mountains and great deep; I found myself re-reading those verses as we literally drove up the mountains of the Alps. How great is His righteousness, a word here which is synonymous with justice – and how meager is my understanding of that!

Yet, I wasn’t five minutes into my exploration of the beauty of this chapter when I was overcome with a sense of conviction. It was gracious, but firm: Maddie, you haven’t even read the first five verses. My eyes had found the word “wicked” and then immediately skipped down to “love.” It wasn’t even a conscious avoidance of the verses; I had unknowingly and subconsciously bypassed them because that wasn’t what I was looking for. I was here to sit in the love of the Lord, not read about His condemnation for the wicked – what relevance did that have to me, enjoying the spoils of a spring break with my best friends? Also, I was reading for personal meditation and communion with Jesus, not exegetical bible study or teaching; skimming over context seemed to matter less.

Imagine my chagrin when scanning back up to the first five verses, I was met with this:

In their own eyes they flatter themselves
    too much to detect or hate their sin

That describes me and the posture of my heart everyday. Not only that, it cut to the heart of why I skipped over those verses in the first place. My ability to flatter myself into thinking that I’m not capable of being a part of the “wicked” people this psalm is describing means that I’m, by definition, living into that. What’s more, I’m assuming that I can jump down to the Lord’s love and righteousness without acknowledging my own sin. Except that I can’t. It leaves me with a skimpy picture of just how deep and pervasive that love and justice is. It puts it on my terms, something that I can control and comprehend. It’s only when I realize just how deeply flawed I am, how quickly I turn from the Lord that I love, and how easily I delude myself into thinking that I have less need for forgiveness, grace, or redemption, that I better understand His steadfast love. It’s only then that I can truly look upon mountains in wonder, knowing His justice spans higher and wider. It’s a convicting reality, one that clearly I’m not always great at leaning into – but such is the nature of this journey.

What a beautiful psalm that gets at the truth of who we are and who He is (even if I was initially a little hesitant about acknowledging it).

Am I Loving Something Else More than Jesus?

We know that Christ’s proximity to us never changes, so if I’m walking through a moment, a week, or a season where He feels distant, there’s a chance there’s something going on in my heart. I question my heart when I’m feeling anxious, apathetic, or overwhelmed. If I’m wondering where Jesus is or having trouble hearing Him, I compel my heart to evaluate: Am I loving something else more than Jesus?

 

That’s not to say that His silence or my emotions are always tied to some prioritization, sin-issue. Sometimes we walk through desert seasons, unprompted by our actions, where He is actively silent. Sometimes our emotions just don’t make logical sense. Yet, in asking these questions, I’m able to better identify if something emotional or spiritual is going on that’s causing whatever disconnect my body and soul are feeling, or if it’s something that I’ve consciously or unconsciously stepped myself into.

 

Over the years, I’ve found a couple of good indicators that help me answer this question honestly. If any one of these things is true of my recent habits or thought patterns, it’s often an indication that something has stolen or is in the process of stealing away my first Love.

 

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1.) If I’m not tithing. . .
This is often the first place I can go when it comes to checking the priorities in my heart. Since I was little, giving generously hasn’t been a strong suit of mine. While the Lord has been gracious, patient, and convicting, it’s still one of the first things to go when I’m keeping a tight grip on my life or am needing some semblance of control. If I’m not tithing or have pulled back on the 2 Corinthians 8:2 and Mark 12:44 kind of generosity I so long for, it’s a good indication that I’m loving something else more than Jesus.

 

2.) If I’m planning my future with lots of pragmatism, worry, and details. . .
There’s a tension here, because on one level, I need to be planning my future. I’m graduating undergrad college in less than three months, and in just over a year I’ll be done with my masters program. I’m actively taking steps towards what the Lord has my future and I’d be remiss and unfaithful if I wasn’t. In and of itself, the planning for my future or moving towards open doors isn’t a bad thing. However, there’s a difference between trusting the Lord, walking into the things He’s doing and living in a place of control, surety, and self-assurance that often leads to worry. Oftentimes, the more details I’m including or searching for, the better the indicator of my own desire for control. When the focus of my planning is myself, my ability to manipulate the details, and my sense of ability, there’s a good chance I’m loving something else more than Jesus.

 

3.) If I’m spending lots of time watching TV (especially in leu of other restful things). . .
Another tension one, because there are times when things like watching Netflix or napping are the most restful, spiritual things that I can be doing. There are times where I’ve tried to spend deep time with Jesus and He told me to watch a movie with Him instead – not because studying Scripture, processing what He’s doing, and interceding in prayer aren’t imperatively important but because sometimes I can get so wrapped up in them that I forget to rest. To just be. I’m convinced that anything can be done as an act of worship in the right moments. However, these things of rest can also be a form of escapism if I’m not careful – things to draw me away from dealing with my life, emotions, or relationships. Ways of shutting down because I’m avoiding myself, others, or the Lord. If I’m actively avoiding other things that are restful, such as walks, drawing, working out, writing, or reading, because they might require more introspection and difficulty, there’s a good chance something has taken the Lord’s place in my heart.

 

4.) If I find myself doubting or questioning things that the Lord has said in the past. . .
There’s a place for questioning and testing the work of the Lord in our lives, especially as ongoing maturity lead us to new levels of illumination of who He is. We should approach everything with a level of humility in how capable we are of getting it wrong (that’s the whole point of the Gospel). Yet, when I find myself wondering if things the Lord has done or spoken in the past are trustworthy, it’s usually an indication that something else has slipped into my soul. Because for as capable as I am of missing it, I also know that He is near and who He is can be trusted. Changing views should be a progression of growth and grace, not a sense that the Lord can’t be trusted, and if that’s what it feels like when I think back to His work in my life, then there’s a good chance something else has snuck it’s way in.

 

5.) If it’s becoming easier to justify things that I know are wrong. . .
 Like number 4, there’s a level of growing into maturity and new understandings of what is and isn’t sin, however there are certain things that I’ve established as either universally or personally wrong. Things that I’ve committed to or things that Scripture has previously called me out on are usually a pretty good baseline for what I should and should not be doing. This is less about my ability to slip up or to make mistakes and more about my conviction in justifying things. If I’ve found myself in a place where I’m rationalizing things that I’ve previously committed to not engage with, there’s a pretty good chance I’m avoiding the Lord and something else is competing for His love.

 

6.) If I’m overly critical or praiseworthy of others, in a way that stems from comparison. . .
This is not a sense of encouragement or noticing the work of the Lord in others – this is noticing beauty in them for the sake of putting myself down. Or conversely, this is not a sense of being aware of other’s shortcomings for the sake of growth and care, but rather a sense of hypercritical frustration with who they are. If I’m being judgmental and altogether hateful in my thoughts, actions, or interactions with others, particularly those who’ve seemed to rub against specific insecurities, it’s a pretty good indication that the issue is with me, not them. If it’s proving harder and harder to love others, there’s a good chance the Lord is not #1 in my heart.

 

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They aren’t end-all-be-all markers of my relationship with the Lord. Sometimes these things come up when I’m walking closely with Jesus. This isn’t to say that all six have to be present for me to acknowledge that I’m avoiding the Lord, nor that if only one is present I’m in a good place spirituality. They manifest with different reasons and different intensities at different times. But in general, they are pretty incongruent when my heart is focused solely on Jesus. Which is what makes them a great, practical, often painful, indicators of my true heart condition.

 

The Old, Old Story

In the beginning, God created . . .

. . . and He created everything.

Every star, every blade of grass, every rock that has eroded into the sea. Night and day, every animal, every insect, every wave, He created. It was all beautiful and very good. Then, He created man and woman. He loved them and He was in relationship with them. God walked with them, talked with them. He loved them so very, very much.

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But, then sin is introduced to the story, as the Enemy of God, this former fallen angel, distracts man and woman away from their First Love. God, in his perfection, can’t tolerate this sin. Yet He loves His people, so thousands of years pass as He constantly draws His people back to Himself. It makes Him sad and angry, but He loves these people so much. Sin keeps getting in the way, but story after story God faithfully and relentlessly draws near to the ones that He created, sustains, and loves.

Then we reach the climax of that love – God the Father, in His mysterious, triune, relational nature, sends His Son, and extension of Himself, to walk among us. To be like us. To serve us. To be tempted in every way. To model the heart of God for us. Ultimately this Son gives up His own life and perfection to die a humiliating, horrific death, as the blameless sacrifice, as we could never atone, to repair the relationship. He brings us into the fullness of God’s infinite love for us. Jesus took the punishment we deserved, because of His great love for us.

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Yet it wasn’t merely His death that is significant, for three days later He rose from the dead, defeating both death and sin, repairing the breech, and drawing us into communion with God. He left His very Spirit, His Holy Spirit, to indwell us, that we might know and remain in fellowship with God, even on earth. The perfection of this fellowship that we will ultimately come into, as we step across eternity and live in eternal relationship with God in Heaven (or when Jesus returns to completely heal the earth).

It is the grandest story of love – of a God who created everything in love, who drew an unfaithful people to Himself in love, who chose to walk as one of us in love, who paid the price for the sin that we deserved, in love.

Love who rose again, defeating death and sin, who sent His Spirit to testify to our souls of that love.

This is our God, who daily, minute by minute, is displaying, speaking, and proclaiming His great love for us.

We confess that we are sinners in need of a Savior. We repent of the ways in which we reject Him and His love. We believe in who He says He is and all that He’s done for us. We go out and continue to tell people of this great love of our great God!

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