Judgment of the Flowers

Winding, bending, world-condemning,

Flowers quietly proclaiming:

“End of Babel, end of Rome,

Every empire comes and goes.”

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They break free of our weak constraints,

Fences won’t control their grace,

Leaping nearer to the sky,

Towering over you and I.

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These gentle rebels, free of wrath,

Hungrily consume our paths,

They crown themselves with queenly rights,

Enrobed in royal colors bright.

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We find their wisdom hard to know,

Their fleeting beauty brings us woe,

Yet, flowers, teach us, in our strife,

Your noble death, consumed by life!

–N.R. 9/13/20

Flowers know something that we don’t: life moves in cycles. 

Running through a park near my school’s campus this fall, I’ve noticed that since quarantine the flowers have overgrown many of the paths and walkways in absence of people. In some areas, they are tall and tangled enough to form a ceiling of sorts over those strolling through. They seem almost defiant of the restraint humanity has placed on them, in their own ephemeral way. Indeed, for a season they bloom extravagantly and uninhibited, but then they brown and die, decaying quickly when their time has come. In short, flowers just don’t care.

What gives flowers this kind of audacity, to be so temporary yet so vivacious? Why do they resist the order imposed on them when left to themselves? It’s because they know that things which are seen are passing away.

“So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” 2 Corinthians 4:18

Flowers bloom, grow tall, wilt, and shrivel. Birth leads to life which leads to death and rebirth. Spring becomes Summer, which turns to Fall, which freezes into Winter, which returns to Spring again. Societies are built, expand, collapse, and die. These are the cycles of life, the cycles of history too. 

All that we see today–sickness, uncertainty, loss, even America itself–will no longer be in the future, and other things will take their place. The hope we have in these cycles is that Christ is making all things new (Revelation 21:5). He has designed an eternal life for us and an eternal kingdom which is not yet seen, but will last forever.

A Hunger for Righteousness

The following is a message that I presented for my Message Preparation for Women course this semester at Moody. While it is written for an audience of college-aged women living and studying in Chicago, I feel that this message is pertinent for all of us as we continue to face the question of what pursuing justice requires of our nation. As we look ahead toward November 2020, these are my heartfelt reflects on what the Bible says about desiring to live in a just society.

The year 2020 has already proven to be a significant time in all of our lives. One aspect of this year’s significance that I believe has been overlooked, however,  is that it is the 100 year anniversary of the passage of the 19th amendment, which granted women in the United States the right to vote. For the last century all of us, women and men together, have been able to voice our desires for justice in this country at the polls. And in the midst of a tumultuous presidential election season, we see all around us that there are many Americans who desperately need justice. 

For instance, where is justice for our neighbors in Little Village whose unemployment benefits gets revoked if it is suspected that they are undocumented (even if they are not)? What does justice look like on the South Side, when children often have no access to technology, so they can’t get to class on zoom this school year?  What would justice mean for the Planned Parenthood clinic down the street on LaSalle, and for the mothers who make devastating choices because they don’t think they can support a baby? These are just examples from our own city, microcosms of what is happening across our nation. Like some of you, perhaps, this is my first time voting for president since being eligible to vote, and I want to engage this task responsibly and in a godly manner at such a crucial time. I wonder, however, if justice is something we are able to vote into office?

In reality, there is only one government that has ever instituted a just society in all human history. This was God’s theocratic rule over the ancient Israelites. The Law in the Old Testament, therefore, is the only expression of a truly just system. 

Still, Israel had problems (in their sinfulness) living out this system. We know that Jesus is the only man to ever live the Law perfectly, and that His righteousness fulfills it. But the prophets often had to bring Israel’s sin and rebellion before them to guide them toward justice and God’s grace again. Our passage today in Isaiah 58 is one example of this prophetic confrontation. 

As we turn to Isaiah 58, it’s important to note that this prophecy was written during the reign of Hezekiah (king of Judah during the divided kingdom), whose story is told in Isaiah 37-39. This king makes major religious reforms in Israel, guiding people to worship only the true God. One day, however, Hezekiah welcomes messengers from the superpower nation of Babylon to see all his royal treasures, because he feels invincible. After this unwise action, Isaiah, the prophet, promises Hezekiah that Judah will be carried off to Babylon with the king’s riches. Hezekiah doesn’t worry, however, because he knows there will be peace in his lifetime. Judah begins coasting through Hezekiah’s reign, which stunts the reform movement he started. Let’s look at the state of Judah, who was fasting as nation to receive God’s favor, in Isaiah 58:

King Hezekiah displaying his riches.

“Shout it aloud, do not hold back. Raise your voice like a trumpet. Declare to my people their rebellion, and to the house of Jacob their sins.

For day after day they seek me out; they seem eager to know my ways, as if they were a nation that does what is right and has not forsaken the commands of its God. They ask me for just decisions and seem eager for God to come near them.

‘Why have we fasted,’ they say, ‘and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves and you have not noticed?'”

What we see here is that Israel’s self-righteous fasting does not fool God. In verse 1, it is clear that God is confronting His people about their practices in a way that they cannot ignore–a declaration like a trumpet call. After Isaiah uses this kind of attention-grabbing imagery, he begins to call out Israel’s wickedness. The prophet does this because Judah’s integrity did not match their requests to God, as it says in verse 2. Judah thought they were seeking the Lord, but they had actually forsaken His commands. Then they wondered why he did not notice their fasting in verse 3. I think it is important to stop here and ask: why were they fasting to seek just decisions from the Lord? 

We should not let our idea of fasting be confused with what Israel was doing at this time. They were not only abstaining from food as an expression of individual devotion to God. That is the way we tend to see fasting. This was a nation hungering together for righteousness. God had commanded Israel to fast once a year, on the Day of Atonement to remind them that they needed his provision for their sin to be taken away. However, as time went on the leaders and teachers of the law increased their fasting days to prove their religious zeal. In ancient Judaism, they hoped prayer and fasting would manipulate God, so that he would answer their requests. Yet, we see that this fasting was beyond what God had commanded, and in doing it Judah left what God did command undone

I realized when studying this passage that our society actually does this too (both inside and outside of the church), but our approach is not typically appealing to God through fasting. The ways that we reveal our hunger for righteousness look different from Judah’s, but are just as problematic as theirs. 

What does this look like in our nation typically?

Firstly, we take to social media, posting about tragedies or events that reveal injustices around us. Also, we do research: our culture often turns to studies and science to find out how oppression impacts people in all areas of life in hopes that information will change us. One we’ve seen much of this year is protesting: seeking the attention of our leaders and verbalizing our disapproval.

I don’t think these things are always bad, however, I also do not think they are what God is necessarily commanding us as the Church to do to fight injustice. 

We as American believers are often just like the Israelites, thinking that we do right and seek the ways of the Lord. But, this hunger for righteousness is superficial and ungodly. We think God should hear our petitions, but really we only care about appearances. Our social media posts don’t lead to action, and we only post when everyone else is talking about something. We use research to confirm our own opinions, not to lead us to the truth. Protests might garner attention from the government for a time, but they don’t guarantee that any changes will come about. We do these things to demand the outcomes we desire to see in the world and forget to listen, praying, Father, your will be done.

Spurgeon says it this way in his commentary on Isaiah: “O my dear friends, let us always be afraid of merely external religiousness!…it is indeed but the ghastly coffin of a soul that never was quickened unto spiritual life.”

We need the grace of God to clear us of this hypocrisy and reform our hunger for righteousness, so we can climb out of the coffin of external religiousness and truly pursue a just society.

It is no surprise that we also find in Isaiah 58 that our self-righteous fasting cannot create a just society. As Isaiah says:

“Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please, and exploit all your workers. Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists.”

Evil resulted from Israel’s fast days, which were meant to be set aside to pursue goodness and truth. This was utterly hypocritical behavior. A very recent example of this kind of fruitless fast in our own culture was Blackout Tuesday, which happened on June 2nd of this year. I participated in it, and maybe some of you did too. On that day, the music industry encouraged media outlets to abstain from releasing new material, and instead producing silent or blacked out programming for 8 minutes and 46 seconds to reflect the amount of time that a police officer knelt on George Floyd’s neck. The trend took to Instagram, and users began posting black square photos, abstaining from their own posting habits. Unfortunately, confusion over the hashtags which were being used for protests and for Blackout Tuesday left mobilizers unable to track events over social media in the sea of black squares flooding the internet. At the end of the day, there was greater tension and anger from the misunderstanding than unity because of the expression of solidarity. It was a fast that led to arguments and discord rather than creating a just society. 

As the second half of verse 4 says, we should not expect God to hear us when we act in this way. It says:

“You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high.”

God doesn’t have to listen to foolish arguments, or honor self-righteousness. The Lord sees through this behavior, and knows when our fasting completely misses the point. He asks Israel in verse 5:

“Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for man to humble himself? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying on sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?”

These are rhetorical questions, but it is clear that the answer to each is no. God sees that our hypocrisy cannot transform us. He knows–as Shakespeare writes in his play, Hamlet– that, “One can smile and smile and be a villain”. Yet, we still ignore His grace, and we think that putting in our day of fasting (or our black square on instagram) is enough. 

We are not called to a Blackout Tuesday kind of fasting, which does not create a just society.  Instead, our self-righteous fasting needs to be replaced by the kind of fasting God desires, which is something greater, and empowered by His Spirit in us. Verses 6 and 7 tell us what true fasting looks like:

“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter–when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?”

We should note at least three things about God’s kind of fast:

  1. It is active: doing good for others and working to solve problems. This is not sitting around waiting for God to work, but going to the heart of where injustice happens and expecting that in His grace He will meet us there. The avenues through which we can actively work for justice are boundless, but here are a few ways you could get started: attending church or a small group with people of a minority from the South Side or West Side during your time at Moody; volunteering once a month (or more frequently) in underserved communities through food banks, homeless shelters, or local church ministries; donating to pregnancy care centers and organizations that pursue justice globally, like Samaritan’s Purse or A21. You could even dedicate space on your blog or social media to contribute meaningful dialogue about issues that other people are facing. I’ve had the privilege of doing some of these things during my time at Moody, and they have blessed me immensely and propelled me forward to do more on the behalf of the voiceless. For you as well, even a small step could be the catalyst to something greater, but if none of us move, nothing will change. We all must listen to where God’s heart for justice wants us to go, and then act in obedience in His power.
  1. It costs us something: we have to give up our food, share our shelter, and provide clothes in this kind of fasting. We don’t just abstain, what we forfeit is given to others. It could be as simple as giving our time or our money beyond our regular tithing. The point is that we choose to bless others with what we have every right to keep for ourselves.
  2. It dismantles oppression: we should be fasting in such a way that our society is reordered. This is penetrating work, and we have to let ourselves be examined in every sphere of our influence. We must be ready to sacrifice and listen well to the conviction of the Holy Spirit to find what areas we need to change in ourselves and our communities. Then we can move forward with the grace of God, living a lifestyle of justice that flows from our relationship with Him and our conformity to His character.

Here is an example of this active, costly, and oppression-dismantling kind of fasting in our society: In 2018, Chick fil a responded to the devastation of Hurricane Florence by giving away free food to those displaced by the storm and to first responders. This is the company’s pattern of responding to the hardship around them. By fasting from profit and sacrificing product, the company is an active agent in seeing justice done.

The Lord promises that His kind of fasting–active, costly, and oppression-dismantling–results in breakthrough, because He Himself responds to it.

“Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.”

This beautiful image Isaiah uses of light breaking forth with the dawn reminds me of the battle of Helm’s Deep in The Lord of the Rings. This battle in the second part of the trilogy, The Two Towers, begins in seemingly impossible odds. The army of men, bunkered in an ancient stone fortress on the side of a mountain, is on the verge of despair. None of their allies have come to their aid against the hordes of Mordor. 

The Battle of Helm’s Deep

A few days before the battle, the wizard, Gandalf, decides to leave, making everything more bleak. He tells Aragorn, one of the leaders of the frail army, “Look to my coming on the first light of the fifth day, at dawn look to the east.” He leaves, and soon Mordor attacks. The fighting lasts all night, and the fortress is breached several times by the enemy. Surely enough, however, at the first glimpse of that fifth morning Gandalf sweeps over the hillside on a white horse, bathed in the light of the dawn with hundreds of new soldiers and renewed hope. The enemy goes into full retreat and the fortress is saved. This is my favorite scene of the entire movie.

Imagine seeing this kind of magnificent hope manifest in our nation today! God is able to deliver us from the overwhelming forces of injustice, when we are cornered and beat down from every side. Amidst the uncertainty and calamity, He wants to give us glimpses of the future kingdom that we long for. 

He will be our healing, behind us and before us like verse 8 says. And He will hear us when we ask for His divine aid, granting us His presence as a definitive answer to our call. But we have to fight the battle in expectation of His arrival.

We fight this battle under the banner of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. As I noted before, in all human history only He has ever lived a life truly committed to justice as a man. Isaiah 59 actually predicts this centuries beforehand, and says in verses 16 and 20:

“He saw that there was no one, he was appalled that there was no one to intervene; so his own arm worked salvation for him, and his own righteousness sustained him.”

“‘The Redeemer will come to Zion, to those in Jacob who repent of their sins,’ declares the Lord.”

Jesus fasted in God’s way with his entire existence–his ministry was active, costly, and dismantled oppression from within. He hungered for righteousness in every moment. Jesus spent himself for the poor, loosed every chain, set the oppressed free, shared his food with the hungry, clothed the naked. It led him to death, and his sacrifice covered our inability to live as He did for justice.  Growing in Christlikeness should cause us to show the same sacrificial love in action. Our active, costly, and oppression-dismantling fasting for justice should make us look more like our Savior as His Spirit works in us. We fast in God’s way by becoming more like him, and trusting in his righteousness instead of our own.


So this year, as women and men of America we long for justice, but as followers of Christ, we can do more than simply filling out our ballots at the polls. We must hunger for righteousness in honor of Him. We must be active, sacrificial, and destroy oppression through the Spirit’s leading. We must fast and pray in God’s way, becoming more like Christ to see His justice break forth like the dawn over the darkness of 2020.

Gravity

A silent rope, intangible,

Is holding you to me,

It proves distance surmountable,

And breaks our star-crossed theme.

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It binds our time as dear ones fast,

And melds us into one,

This cosmic bond can surely last,

When days so near are gone.

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Life can drag to forking paths,

Those most inclined to stay,

Even then they’re linked by math,

Since physics’ rules don’t sway.

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You’re lost to me in time and space,

So often I lose heart,

And hide in every nearest face,

Whenever we’re apart.

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Though I know not just where you are,

Nor where you plan to go,

Still strong–though stretched however far

Our rope will surely show.

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Yes, others gain the benefit,

Of close proximity,

But nature’s laws will never quit,

We’re bound by gravity.

–N.R. 6/8/2020

Did you know that you share a gravitational attraction to every single object in the universe? The laws of gravity state that every single mass that exists experiences the gravitational pull of every other mass. Though distance is a factor into which masses are most affected by the gravity between them, the force still exist between all objects, people, planets, and stars.

I was thinking about how so often people come in and out of my life, and sometimes it seems like I’ll never be able to be close with them anymore. Maybe they move far away, or they have a new stage of life apart from mine, or they just have a busy schedule that means they can’t be accessible. Sometimes they just change as people and we move along different currents. I’ve found comfort in the fact that I still share gravity (literally and figuratively) with those people, that their impact on my life still exists even when our relationship is no longer what it used to be. I can remember the briefest and longest of friendships and be encouraged that we are linked by something that supersedes our distance to each other.

In this time of separation and constant change, I’m letting the laws of gravity remind me that I’m not as disconnected as I sometimes feel.

A Prayer for Chicago

Lord, 

All we see right now is shattered glass, shattered lives, a shattered city.

We’re being smashed to bits by lies,

Twisted truth,

Our choice to forfeit reality,

Unwilling to unearth truth from its grave,

Where we left it to die so our pride would not be injured. 

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Save us from lawlessness,

From our crooked pens (cameras and keyboards)

Which weave narratives of falsehood 

To serve our selfish, evil purposes

That keep us in power,

Keep us comfortable,

Or that we think justify our belligerent actions.

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Save us from despair that leads to desperate, frustrated violence.

Save us from oppressive power structures.

Save our children from stray bullets.

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Save us from thinking that our city can suffer around us,

While we sit idly by,

Inconvenienced, but not perturbed,

Refusing to mourn for our brothers and sisters. 

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Save us from divisiveness and anger.

Save us from our opinions, the deceit of our finite perspective, and from assumptions with disastrous consequences.

Save us from our reluctance to consider loss of life as more costly than our dollars.

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Save us from our loneliness,

Save us from our lack,

Save us from our indulgence,

Save us from our disease,

Save us from cold hearts,

Save us from cynical science.

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Lord, we are a people of unclean lips,

Next to your holiness we falter.

We stumble in the mire of our filthy greed,

Selfishness, pride, and self-sufficiency.

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Humble us Lord.

Sweep across this nation with a wildfire of repentant hearts,

Hearts that relinquish their reigns,

And allow you to show them righteousness.

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Make love our banner,

Grace our resiliency,

Your Gospel our singular hope for change.

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Let every obstacle we overcome,

Every sin we uproot in our hearts,

And every sacrifice we make to love people we once hated,

Reveal your perfection in greater measure.

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Help us to look higher

To see that your purposes will contort this evil

Into a good that outweighs its horror,

To see that you can redeem a city on its knees–

You build out of ruins.

Your goodness outweighs everything:

Every mixed motive, evil intention, and chaotic calamity.

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Help us to say, as your prophet once said,

“We have a strong city, God makes salvation its walls and ramparts.”

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Help us see your face

Through the shattered glass,

With your loving expression, 

Ready to mend.

–N.R. 8/10/2020

Pause

“Passion…will have all now, but Patience is willing to wait.” –John Bunyan, Pilgrim’s Progress

Hustle. Hurry.

Immediacy. Impertinence.

Now or never.

Next things and cheap rings.

Passion keeps pushing.

.

Yet,

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Could there be a value–

A wealth, a fortune, even–

In waiting?

Warding off vanities with

Delayed gratifications.

A simmering rumble expounded to a roar…

A towering wave quelled upon the shore…

A dogged, prudent asking for more…

Patience permits pauses.

–N.R. 7/2/18

When I got the email that my school was returning to campus this fall, I wasn’t excited. I honestly didn’t feel anything in particular. When people asked I told them I was looking forward to being back on campus and seeing everyone again. I wasn’t lying, I really was looking forward to it, I just didn’t let myself invest in the thought emotionally. 

In truth, I was already looking long past this coming fall semester. Maybe by spring there would be a vaccine, and no more necessity for masks. I would be able to have all the adventures I wanted to have in the city before I graduated. I was dreaming ahead about job opportunities, possible travel plans, and how everything might be different after the end of the school year. Then it was on to life afterward, with all its shining possibilities. Fall semester was just a bridge to cross from the disappointment of quarantine to the discoveries of the future.

Just like that, I had 2020 written off. What good could come from it anyway? I didn’t expect anything positive to happen, didn’t expect myself to do anything remarkable, didn’t expect God to have any more wonders for the rest of the year. It was used up. 

I found myself saying it in conversations: “We’ll just start over in 2021”. 

I heard it on the radio: “Doesn’t 2020 just suck?”

I heard it from others too: “2020 is basically cancelled.”

But then I looked at the calendar: it was (and still is) July. That meant there were five months before the end of 2020. What could possibly fill those months?

So I started filling them myself: reading and writing and projects and posting and running and texting incessantly and eating and movies and anything else I could possibly think of to distract me and make it feel like I was getting somewhere.

I realized that I was entertaining a lack mentality. This kind of thinking can look a lot of different ways, but in this case it meant assuming that the next five months were a wasteland with no joy to be found, no excitement, and nothing worthwhile to invest in. It meant thinking that I had the power to consume enough things to fill my own life in the way I wanted. I wanted to just run myself ragged trying to get to the next thing. I had no trust that the Lord would continue to fill my life with good things (Psalm 103:5), so I tried to fill in my perceived lack myself and ignore whatever He wanted to do with 2020.

Patience has the answer to this problem. Instead of pushing past this year, what would it look like to pause in it? To inhabit the gray area? To not try and get all of my normal life back right away? To wait on the Lord and see what he is building and working on? The truth is, as much as we try to run about filling our lives with the next thing, God outruns us every time. He never stops being generous or kind or diligent in doing good for this world. He is always giving, saving, healing, filling, and serving.

So my attitude has started changing: In the pause, what are the things I can experience only in this time? What are the things I can work on in the background of my life that might helpfully surface later? How can I keep learning to be an advocate of justice and racial reconciliation after the waves of excitement about it on social media have passed? What foundations can I lay for disciplines, habits, or skills right now? How could I lean in to the fall semester on campus with all my friends and peers and work and classes? In all these things, what is God still doing in 2020? If you find yourself writing off 2020, maybe you could ask yourself similar questions.

It surprised me to find that pausing in this year was the best way to keep moving through it. 

*****

“Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.” –Romans 12:12

“Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” –Galatians 6:9

Where Sinners Go

God loves the humble and the low,

He dines with them, where sinners go.

He sides with them, He took their place,

He lifts them from their forced disgrace.

He’ll use the weak to shame the strong,

Because they’ve known it all along:

The secret is to be in need–

Oppression’s cuff is justice’s seed.

Repentance paves the road on high;

Before you live, your pride must die.

His city fills with needy saints,

Restored, at peace, no longer faint.

Unending rest is all they know,

His table full, where sinners go.

–N.R. 5/31/20

As Good As Dead

They look at a man

As good as dead:

Hanging from the gallows,

Condemned unpardonably,

Hated by all,

Covered in shame,

Guilty in the courts,

Life slipping from his lungs.

Another criminal crushed by justice.

Another Friday for the executioner.

Another rebel put to rest.

The crowd says, “Save yourself!”

Knowing it won’t happen.

The other man

(As good as dead too),

Sees the same, but more…

Words ring through his head:

“Some standing here

Will not taste death

Before they see

The kingdom of God.”

Death encroaches,

He can taste it, 

But he believes the sign written:

“King of the Jews”

To also mean King of the Universe.

He says, “I’m guilty, 

But you’re not a thief, Lord. 

Your throne is claimed rightfully.

Remember me when it turns out

The way you say it will.

You’ll save the cosmos, 

Not just Yourself,”

Knowing it will happen.

This is no Hail Mary,

Buzzer shot, get out of jail conversion,

An attempt to cheat death.

It’s contrition, true repentance, and

Faith that moves mountains.

–N.R. 6/22/20

Created by Arthit Longwilai

I’ve always heard that the story of the thief on the cross next to Jesus (found in Luke 23:32-43) is about the fact that it’s “never too late” to put faith in Christ and be forgiven. This is true, however, the more I read this story, the more it becomes apparent that something much larger is happening in the heart of the thief. In Luke’s gospel, the author spends most of the story highlighting the idea of the kingdom of God, describing it with stories and sharing what Jesus teaches about it. It is supposed to be a real, tangible kingdom, but also one that is spiritual and not yet complete on this earth. The Jews expected the kingdom of God to be an overthrow of the Roman Empire, who was controlling them at the time. 

Amidst the paradox, confusion, and the king of this kingdom’s own imminent death, the thief chooses to believe that the kingdom will still come. He knows Jesus will be there to see it too, saying, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom”. Not only does he trust that what Jesus says will come true, but that He can defy death in order to see it happen. This was no “If you could do me a favor, please let me into heaven, Jesus.” This was a startling assertion of faith that contradicted everything the dying man should have believed based on his immediate circumstance. 

In a broader discussion about how creation is longing to be renewed, Romans 8:24 says, “hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has?” And Hebrews 11:1 says, “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for, and certain of what we do not see.” In other words, hope longs to see what faith knows will happen in the future. Do we have faith for today like that? Amidst war and injustice and racism and everyday violence and corruption (and so on)–can we look death in the face like the doomed thief and have faith in a different end to the story in the kingdom of God? Faith in Christ anchors us; it’s not just vague assent to whimsical claims, but a trust that supersedes our reality, telling us that we will see God and His kingdom in its fullness one day.

The City Part 5: The Man Who Entered Through Judah’s Gate

As I’ve noted throughout this series, cities are complex places, displaying all shades of reality–best to worst. The New Jerusalem (as described in Revelation 21), however, is the eternal city that we look forward to as Christians that will not be plagued by systemic racism, corrupt leadership, anger, pain, or any other kind of evil. Perfection and joy and unity will characterize that city. 

A reminder for my brothers and sisters in Christ: the New Jerusalem comes at the resolution of the story of this world. There is much pain and sorrow yet to be faced, but at least we know that one day it will all be made perfect and right. I hope this story ignites that hope inside of you, dreaming about what it could be like to be in that new city with our Lord one day…

_______________________________________________

The empty, golden streets sparkled under the light of glory radiating from Zion. The holy hill was bathed in light from the throne room out, into every conceivable corner of the awaiting city. The Father had prepared and lighted a place where He would dwell with His people in eternal day. Every building stood luminous, parapets and pagodas next to Victorian mansions and Arabic palaces. Colors yet unseen and treasures unheard of on the earth below lined each block. Every brick, jewel, flower and plant caught the brightness of the sky. Twelve pearl gates glowed effulgently around the perimeter of the city. Gentle music of celestial choirs near the throne caught the breeze and filled the air with praise and harmony. The sky itself was painted with the shimmering pastels of dawn, subdued in anticipation. 

Gradually, the chorus from the throne room rose to new heights in a jubilant, euphonious cheer. Adulation of the Almighty started pouring down the mountain, flooding its base. Cherubim, seraphim, and every kind of heavenly creature emerged from on high, singing in mellifluous unity and descending Zion into the city. 

As they passed through the streets, they cried, “Holy, holy, holy!” into the alleys and paths and parks. To the fountains and flowerbeds they cried, “Worthy, worthy, worthy!” But their praise had not yet met an ear to hear it. Through the center of the city on the broadest road they went, headed north to Judah’s gate. When they arrived, the roaring host swelled with movement and sound. Here they waited, unable to contain their heavenly joy and bliss. A mighty angel stood outside the gate, resolute in his solemn duty, waiting just as expectantly as the throng behind.

After a few moments, the clouds beyond the gate stirred, and a powerful wind began blowing from beneath the city into the gate. A hush fell over the heavenly horde, and stillness too. The great pearl gate swung open slowly. The angel stepped aside to the city wall, knelt down, planted his sword in the ground, and bowed his head to honor him who was finally arriving. 

From amidst the clouds, a man rose with his arms extended upward. He floated up completely into view and landed just before the threshold of Judah’s gate. He stood there for an instant, and the cosmos stared. Every creature held their breath, drinking in his form. He was majestic and victorious, the firmest man to ever stand. His head was held high. He was glorified, and all the crowd strained to see his hands and his feet in the light shining from the mountain.

Then he took a single step, and entered the city. In the silence, the sound resounded, and every being felt the tremor in the ground. A human foot! Come through Judah’s gate! They all roared more ardently than before. They welcomed him with every ounce of strength and adoration that they had. Their darling had returned. They feared him, they were in awe of him, they loved him. 

As heaven’s worshippers reeled in the city, a new throng was forming, this one outside every gate of the city. From Reuben, from Dan, from Simeon, from all. In unison the other eleven gates opened, and the city began to fill. The angels from every gate found every name of every person in the book of life as they passed through the jasper walls. Once inside, the people joined the exultation. It was ages of the faithful, from Eden to the ends of the earth. They were every tribe and tongue, every color and nation. All together they delighted to follow their champion.

He placed his hand on the shoulder of a man next to him, who had the same scars in his hands. Then he arced his arm toward Zion, displaying the horizon. With this gesture, he led them all forward.  Through the center of the city they went, this time the streets brimming with people. Everyone danced and shouted and revered the Lord, God of Israel, and his Word. The humans and spirits took up a hymn together: “Praise the Lord. Sing to the Lord a new song, his praise in the assembly of the saints. Let Israel rejoice in their Maker, let the people of Zion be glad in their King.”

The march proceeded to the mountain, and the celebration stirred in the wake of the man who entered through Judah’s gate. He led them up the heights, and into the throne room itself. To the epicenter of glory he took them, the entire multitude. The Father of heaven and earth welcomed them in, the train of his robe cascading down from the throne. Infinite goodness and holiness emanated from him into the furthest corners of the universe. His love for the Son and for his Spirit reverberated, shaking the very foundations of the mountain. More heavenly beings flew dizzying spirals around Him, never ceasing in their praise and service and proclamation of His authority over all that He had made. 

The heavens dressed the Son in splendor at the Father’s command. He was given a scepter and a scroll with seven seals. His crown exceeded any other ever worn in brilliance and nobility. As a man, he approached the throne of the living God, and sat down at his right hand. The millions of millions watching were breathless. They bowed, prostrating themselves on the ground. “Hail heaven’s king!” they cried. “Hail our priest! Hail the great prophet! Hail the righteous judge! Hail the triumphant warrior! Hail the lamb! Hail lover of the world!”

When the saints saw him crowned, they bowed in utter abandon. They threw their crowns at his feet, declaring his reign forever. No acclaim on earth could they remember, nor any pain, nor sadness, nor defeat. Nothing could grip them more than the glory of their King, the truth incarnate and his magnificence. Their day would never end again; their horizon was eternity at the feet of their Savior, and they rejoiced as was never heard on the earth. 

The refrains of the throne room were echoed for all eternity, for thousands more eons. They loved him and inhabited his city forever, God with humanity–praising the man who entered through Judah’s gate.

An artist’s rendition of the New Jerusalem

Trenches

Don’t look back to

Empty evenings

Scenes that drained life to

The dregs.

Death is there,

Pronounced with

Lightning destruction.

Ezekiel too decried

The folly of heinous lovers

Devoting sacred gifts to

Buyers indiscriminately.

The evenings of empires

Look back to

History and decay from

Golden ages.

.

But, fighting wars

Requires digging trenches;

Unearthing grime to

Make room for riches.

Ezekiel named it,

And I will too,

Releasing death to

Forgiving suns,

Looking back,

Because God was there.

–N.R. 10/31/18

Trenches on the front of WW1

This poem is about the journey of forgiveness. It was not easy to write, because forgiveness is not something that comes naturally to me whatsoever. But forgiveness is crucial for relationships to last, for peace to exist between people, and for unity to be restored. God designed forgiveness as the process by which we are reconciled, and He forgives us freely because of the death of His son Jesus on the cross.

The first part of this piece describes the temptation to ignore pain from the past, to not look back and to instead bury hurtful experiences in a veil of anger and bitterness. It’s easier to do this and find for ourselves “heinous lovers,” cheap substitutes that distract us from reconciling with people–or with God–that hide the damage we’ve felt or inflicted (much like Israel had difficulty turning to God in biblical times when they were possessed by idolatry). It’s also the temptation of nations (like ours) to ignore the injustices and wrongs of the past because they think it unnecessary when on the surface they exist in a “golden age,” if you will.

The second part, however, is about the fact that forgetting and burying are not an option in the process of forgiveness. We have to uproot the past, dig our trenches and confront the pain and bitterness within ourselves to be able to forgive others. And why? Because God was there when we were betrayed, put through the mud, oppressed, neglected, etc. He was there, and He knew how much it hurt. The same God who has numbered the hairs on your head has counted every scar on your heart too. He knew it, and He decided to bear the weight of that forgiveness for you. He was punished for us on the cross, and took every ounce of our guilt, shame, and condemnation. Because we are forgiven freely for our own atrocities this way, we are called to forgive others (Ephesians 4:32).

My prayer is that this piece reminds us that the only way forward in reconciliation is to seek forgiveness. Today, that requires that white and black Americans dig their trenches together, finding out what is really there in our history and what needs to be forgiven so that we can truly come together. Empowered by God’s Spirit, we may see forgiveness change the landscape of our entire nation.

The City Part 4: Tracks

These tracks are just tracks;

Calm edifices, cool shade over 

A busy street.

Life flows by underneath,

Strolling in suits and skirts

With professional gait,

Never pausing for the thunder overhead.

These tracks, the arms of progress,

Lending helpful hands to efficiency and thrivation.

.

Those tracks are traps;

Cold, steel fingers over

A dismal scene.

Life is choked wandering underneath,

Aimless, ragged, and high

With bodies stooped down, 

Frozen by angry lightning overhead.

Those tracks, the walls of cages,

Condemning the hopeless to death and starvation.

.

Worlds apart:

These tracks are just tracks,

Those tracks are mortality.

–N.R. 6/24/19

The El train in Chicago
The El train in Philadelphia

Moving from one major city to another last summer was a major change for me. I had the opportunity to go from Midwest to East Coast, spaciousness to density, Chicago to Philly. What was the biggest difference in my perception though? The El train tracks. In Chicago, not much surprising activity happens under the train tracks on an average day. In Philly, however, the tracks rise above the biggest hotbed of opioid distribution and consumption on the entire coast. It’s a much different picture; people overdose every day as hundreds of homeless and addicted people congregate in the area. It’s a harsh environment, and it’s easy to meet people who are deep in despair. 

This is not to say that I prefer Chicago, or that Philly is a hopeless place. They both are important to me for different reasons, and both have major reputations for their struggles too. The point I wanted to make in this piece is that perception plays a huge role in your mission. The world is dying all around us, and some places (like the North Side of Chicago) are just better at hiding it than other places (like the North Side of Philly). The urgency of the gospel seems more palpable among people who toil each and every day without hope and without anyone to save them from themselves or their environment. So while the El tracks have a whole different meaning from one city to the next for me, I know the message of Christ and his promises are universally the solution to humanity’s despair and misery. I’ve seen that light shine under the El in Philly and in the streets of Chicago alike.