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Like Those Who Dream

Like Those Who Dream

Psalm 126

When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion,
     we were like those who dream.
Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
     and our tongue with shouts of joy;
then they said among the nations,
     “The LORD has done great things for them.”
The LORD has done great things for us;
     we are glad.

Restore our fortunes, O LORD,
     like streams in the Negeb!
Those who sow in tears
     shall reap with shouts of joy!
He who goes out weeping,
     bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy,
     bringing his sheaves with him. 

I’m standing outside the church. It’s Sunday morning. Early. Kinda cold. My hands are in my pockets, shoulders tight, feet moving. I should have brought a jacket. Our congregation is beginning to arrive for church, and I like to be outside whenever I can to greet them. The first dozen or so I’ve seen many times during the pandemic, so they know the routine and head on in. 

And then I see them. Two men, a father and son, whom I haven’t seen since March. For health reasons they were unable to return. But now, with a vaccine, they could. If you know me at all, you know I’m not one for sentimentality. But I kid you not, seeing them brought a warmth, an energy, a joy I had not felt in a long time. I ran up to them too fast. They were alarmed. But when we recognized each other, we beamed. I didn’t know it, but it was like a part of me, a part of my family, had returned, and I felt closer to “whole” again. I know. It’s melodramatic. But it’s true. 

It felt like Psalm 126, a psalm of “ascent” used by faithful pilgrims on their way up to Jerusalem to worship. The whole point of the psalm is to remember. You can see it in the first line: “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion…” The poet is looking back on something God did. Remember when God did that? How that felt? 

That little private moment in the parking lot, I felt like I wasn’t just remembering what God had done. I was experiencing it. I felt like someone in a dream. It was surreal, like God was putting His Temple, His people, back together, one brick at a time, after a long exile in Babylon. During this long pandemic, it felt like a miracle. 

The Lord has done great things for us…
I say all this to remind myself, and maybe you, that God is working. He is restoring our fortunes; He is re-building Christ Community. Even if you are not able to return on Sundays yet (which I completely understand), my hope is that you can still experience the church family coming together as I have.These small miracles can happen at the park, in the driveway, and over the phone. 

Those who sow in tears
I say all this to remind myself, and maybe you, that God never wastes a tear. God makes many promises about our suffering in the Scriptures. But this one, in Psalm 126, is the one I forget the most. God is with us in suffering, God protects us in suffering, of course. But He never wastes our suffering either. In fact, if I’m reading this right, there’s something in particular about our tears that soak the soil for the joy God brings next, more potently than we can imagine. This has always been true of God’s economy, and it still is. 

We have sown many tears this year. Tears of fear, grief, loss, loneliness, and anxiety. Personally, I feel like I have done more funerals this year than I ever have as a pastor. Every one of them hurt, and COVID made each one of them worse. They caused tears. God has planted every one. He has planted yours, too. 

I honestly don’t know what God is going to do next, what this harvest will bring, other than this: it will be joy. Because with God, joy is always the last chapter. Keep sowing, dear church. And I can’t wait to see you again. 

Broken Bones Rejoice

Art from this exhibit at the Four Chapter Gallery was featured in The Beauty of Weakness – Lent Devotional.


Through these paintings [SAMPLE ARTWORK BELOW], I wrestled with the complex reality of pain and suffering. Aesthetically, I was particularly inspired by the Japanese practice of Kintsugi and the philosophy of Wabi-sabi. Kintsugi is a practice whereby a broken piece of pottery is repaired using powdered precious metal and adhesive. The cracks on the piece are entirely visible in their newly gilded form, and the piece actually becomes more valuable than before it was broken. Wabi-sabi is an aesthetic philosophy which values the natural, the temporal, and the ephemeral over the permanent and perfect.

I sought to create personal artifacts of brokenness, and the only thing that could make me brave enough to do so was to filter it through my understanding of why pain exists. I have come to realize that, personally, suffering only becomes unbearable to face if I feel that there can be no deeper meaning beyond it.

Talking about suffering is difficult because it is at once intimate and universal. No matter what you say about it, it lacks some facet or depth of human experience, because it is an individual soul that suffers. As Nicholas Wolterstorff says in his profoundly moving Lament for a Son, “The dynamics of each person’s sorrow must be allowed to work themselves out without judgement. I may find it strange that you should be tearful today but dry-eyed yesterday when my tears were yesterday. But my sorrow is not your sorrow.” I have felt that profound loneliness in my own suffering. In those moments, it feels like no one else could possibly understand what I am going through, and there is some truth to that. No human being can possibly understand another soul’s suffering completely.

I come to the Passion of Jesus Christ here because in Christ my loneliness in my suffering is diminished. Christ’s suffering through the passion corresponds in some aspect to practically any kind of human suffering imaginable. The cross acts as a prism in this way, through which all suffering is split into its many facets. I find that there is no facet he cannot enter, not just because he knows me completely but also because of the life he lived and the death he died. Christ endured a kind of suffering that is the worst I can imagine: he was fully alone, he had no consolation, and God was silent. There was no one to defend him; he could not save himself without compromising those he loved most. He endured agonizing physical pain. And worse than that, many theologians describe the spiritual agony into which Christ descended as one that felt infinite and unending.

More important to me than the eradication of loneliness is the eradication of all suffering itself, which is the whole point of the horrific death of Jesus. Because of Christ’s work on the cross, my journey through the valley of death has an end. The painful process has context and meaning that it didn’t have before. I have often found myself wanting to escape from or ignore my pain in an attempt to speed up my healing process so I can go back to the way I was before, with no scar to remind me of the pain, in an imagined state of perfection. This project has helped me to begin to understand suffering as a process, and to see scarring as a mark of the healing. It is important to note that Christ, the God-man, whose death reworked the very fabric of the cosmos, forever changing the material of the universe, chose to keep his scars after his resurrection.


ABOUT THE PROCESS

Each painting is 64” tall, which is within the range of probable heights for an average male in Palestine in the first century; in other words, it is representative of the height of Jesus of Nazareth. Each panel is the same size; and it is my hope that in this work you will sense a sort of unified bodily presence.

The exhibit is broken into three parts. Part one serves as a narrative introduction to the reality of suffering, the second part explores the particular suffering of Christ as seen in his Passion, and the third part imagines result of that Passion.

In the second part, each work was created with an underpainting. This underpainting often felt finished to me in a sense in that it had a unique beauty that satisfied me. Then I inflicted upon the work an act that was like or representative of what Jesus might have experienced. For example, the painting dealing with the scourging of Christ was itself scourged with a cat-o’-nine tails whip. In another example, the painting meant to express a shadow of the moment of agony when Christ screamed his question, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” was actually removed from the stretcher bars and torn apart.

In the spirit of kintsugi, I have worked some measure of repair on each of the paintings, though not with the intent that they look the same way they did beforehand. Also in harmony with the philosophy of Wabi-sabi and the messiness of the process of suffering, you will find many imperfections in these paintings.  Though they have been glued, sewn, woven, and gilded, I didn’t make an attempt to hide the wounds, but instead chose to see them as a part of the painting’s history, a reminder of the breaking. I let them keep their scars, and this repetitive act helped to instill in me the idea that it is okay for me to keep my own scars as a reminder of my brokenness and the hands that are healing me.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR / ARTIST

Kelly Kruse uses her work to explore the painful, beautiful experience of human longing and suffering. She developed a visual devotional practice as a response to her battle with depression, through which she wrestles with beauty, longing, and faith. Kruse describes her work as contemporary illumination. Like the medieval monks who perfected the art of illuminated manuscripts, she seeks to awake in the viewer a sense of spiritual contemplation. Her first exposure to the idea of illumination came when she studied Medieval and Renaissance music in Italy. Her background in classical music and opera puts her in a unique position to explore the intersection between scripture, poetry, musical works, and the visual arts. Kelly received her undergraduate degree in voice performance from Iowa State University and her masters in voice performance from Indiana University, where she was a student of Costanza Cuccaro. In addition to her visual art practice, she is a member of the music faculty at Metropolitan Community College-Blue River. She also maintains an active private studio and is a member of the National Association of Teachers of Singing. Kelly is a Daler-Rowney sponsored artist.

kellykrusecreative.com

Instagram: @kellykrusecreative


Praying the Blues – In the Dwelling (Part 3)

[PART 3 OF 3]

When the shrapnel of a broken world knocks the wind out of us, and we feel like we can barely breathe—let alone pray—how do we keep praying? When life transitions to a minor key, we take a note from the Psalms once again. We need to pray the blues. And there is one lament that spans two psalms—Psalm 42 and 43—that is just the one to help us figure it out.

THE DWELLING

The psalmist walked us through the drought. He dove deep into the depths. But now, suddenly, as he comes to a close in his prayer, He looks forward to a time where he will once again know the dwelling of God.

In ancient Israel, place—the land—was everything. The temple in Jerusalem, the holy hill of Zion, was a patch where heaven overlapped with earth—God’s dwelling place with man. This was the psalmist’s home, and being far from the temple meant less of God’s felt presence.

So where is the psalmist anyway? In 42:6, he remembers God from the mountain range of Hermon in Jordan, not Israel. From Mount Mizar, which means “little hill,” because every hill other than the one on which God resides feels insignificant. In 42:4, he’s consumed with the thoughts of when he had felt God’s presence in the temple with God’s people singing His praises.

But then there’s a turn. Still, far from the temple, in 43:3, he begins to imagine the day coming where God will indeed send out His light to guide his steps back to the dwelling. Up to the altar, where God, his very joy, resides!

What happened? How’d he go from a disheartening longing for the past to a hopeful longing for the future? In lament, there’s one moment in this prayer that covers Psalms 42 and 43—said three times (42:5, 42:11, and 43:8)—where the psalmist tells his depressed and anxious soul: Be quiet and listen. A moment where all the worried thoughts yelling “where are you?!” and frantic feelings screaming “how could you?” step away from the mic. And the psalmist steps up to sing a better word to himself.

Why are you downcast? What’s really messing with my heart here? As we’ve said time and again, what’s at the center here for the psalmist, and really at the center of every one of our laments, is feeling like God is far from us. And maybe most hurtful of all, that God is unconcerned for us.

Then, he sits his own soul down and says – that’s enough. God hasn’t forgotten. God is trustworthy. Hope in God; for I shall again praise Him, my salvation and my God.

He’s not home. He longs for home because God is there in a way He isn’t anywhere else, and yet he cheers on his own soul to hope in God’s promise anchored in his steadfast love to bring him home someday.

This isn’t our home, which is why we pray the blues. And I would go so far as to say that we should feel some discontent—a dissatisfaction with this world—on a daily basis. If you’ve never had an occasion to sing the blues, you have really low standards. You can’t honestly be satisfied with this. We live in a world of racism, poverty, sin, injustice, and disease, and the best of efforts haven’t made all that much progress. But more than anything, we live in a broken and fallen world where I call out to God and at times He feels unbearably absent. That’s not the way it’s supposed to be, and so we pray the blues.

But at this point in history, we remember and so sing to ourselves, not about a temple in Jerusalem, but when—as the Gospel-writer John says in John 1—God took on flesh and literally “tabernacled among us”! The most holy hill is where the Son of God, Jesus Christ, climbed the mount of crucifixion. No longer do we look to an altar. As the author of Hebrews waxes so eloquently, in Jesus’ single sacrifice on the cross, all sin has been paid for once and for all. The curtain separating God and man in the temple has been torn in two.

And while in a broken world and on a rugged cross, Jesus cried out the lament, “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The very words of the psalms. He became rejected that we might be accepted. He left His home in heaven that He might make a way for us, defeating every bit of sin and shame and brokenness that will keep me from coming home. And three days later, He rose again, and 40 days later ascended to go and prepare a place for His people.

A place that was revealed to John in the book of Revelation. Listen as he recounts the vision of our new and eternal home:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:1-4 ESV)

Don’t you long for this? Doesn’t this make you pray the blues as you wait?

One of my favorite stories of B.B. King is of a concert in 2008. B.B. King was 82 at the time. The place was packed, and finally as the concert came to an end around 2am, after the crowds had cleared and only about 30 or so folks who wanted autographs remained, King looked around at his band and with a nod broke into When the Saints Go Marching In, vamping on the tune for some 20 minutes.

This I think is the true conclusion of praying the blues, a longing for what is to come. My favorite part in that song is when we sing:

Some say this world of trouble
Is the only one we need
But I’m waiting for that morning
When the new world is revealed

The Christian life is a long longing in the same direction, and so when we lament, we pour out our souls to our God because we aren’t home yet. But someday we will be. And until that day, we pray the blues to God and say to ourselves:

Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you in turmoil within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my salvation and my God. (Psalm 43:5 ESV)

Come, Lord Jesus…

Praying the Blues: In the Depths (Part 2)

[SERIES: Part 2 of 3]

When the shrapnel of a broken world knocks the wind out of us, and we feel like we can barely breathe—let alone pray—how do we keep praying? When life transitions to a minor key, we take a note from the Psalms once again. We need to pray the blues.

And there is one lament that spans two psalms—Psalm 42 and 43—that is just the one to help us figure it out. Previously we learned how to pray our longing in the drought. Now we learn how to pray the blues in the depths.

THE DEPTHS

Returning to the Psalms, we discover that as the psalmist pours out his prayers, he fights to remind himself of God even though he can’t feel Him, and it’s anything but a walk in the park. Look at verses 6 & 7:

 My soul is cast down within me;
                therefore I remember You
        from the land of Jordan and of Hermon,
                from Mount Mizar.
        Deep calls to deep
                at the roar of your waterfalls;
        all your breakers and your waves
                have gone over me. (Psalm 42:6-7 ESV)

The irony is that his thirsty soul panting for the flowing streams of God’s presence is now an image of him surrounded by waterfalls and raging waves that threaten to drown him in the depths. What happened? Here’s what happened: the rush of memories of who God is made the pain of God’s absence all the more acute.

It would be like a child remembering how her father used to take her out to a coffee shop every Saturday morning, and then suddenly he stopped showing up. In one sense, the memories are sweet, but it makes the pain of no longer being together all the more intense.

And before his thoughts can go any further, the psalmist stops himself in verse 8. “Yes. God you are my life. My rock!” And then he returns to lamenting again in verses 9-10, “but why have you forgotten me?! Where are you?!” He’s trying with everything he can muster to hold on, and the result is this back and forth tug of lament on his heart. Don’t miss this. It’s so rare we get a window into the authentic wrestling of the soul.

What’s he wrestling with?

The psalmist believes something radical. He believes God is actually present in His world. If God burns bushes and they aren’t consumed, parts waters, rains bread from heaven, crumbles walls, and on and on, then God will fulfill His promises to His people – even to the psalmist himself. He believes it down to his bones. But then he also feels the real oppression of the enemy. He hears the taunts and mocking of his adversaries, the success of the unjust, and he’s trying to reconcile the two.

When the psalmist laments, it’s not just because there is injustice in the world, but rather, he’s terrified that God is nowhere to be found, that God has forgotten about him. And that is like a deadly wound down to his bones. The injustice around him emphasizes the gap between the just God he loves and whom he believes is engaged in his life everyday, and the pain and despair the psalmist is wading through. Where are you, God?! Are you going to stand by and watch me drown?

You know what’s astounding though? When the psalmist wrestles with his doubts and fears, when he feels like God has abandoned him, he brings it all to God, even his harshest accusations.

And so we discover another reason in this psalm why we need to learn to pray the blues: not only do our souls need to be poured out, they need to specifically be poured out to God, which has two amazing implications.

First, this means praying the blues has room for strugglers. You can be wrestling with God and still pray to Him. Did you know that when you compare the laments in the psalms to all other discovered Ancient Near Eastern literature of the time period, it is the most brash language from a human being to their deity. No other literature is this intense. In God’s orchestration of His holy word, we find an invitation for all who are wrestling with God to bring it up with Him. Lament has room for strugglers. I know I’ve been there, and maybe you’re there today.

But this also means praying the blues has no room for complainers. Ok. What’s the difference? One commentator helps show the distinction between lament and complaining when he writes:

“It is crucial to comprehend a lament is as far from complaining or grumbling as a search is from aimless wandering. A grumbler has already reached a conclusion, shut down all desire and postures with questions that are barely concealed accusations…A person who laments may sound like a grumbler – both vocalize anguish, anger, and confusion. But a lament involves even deeper emotion because a lament is truly asking, seeking, and knocking to comprehend the heart of God. A lament involves the energy to search, not to shut down the quest for truth. It is passion to ask, rather than to rant and rave with already reached conclusions. A lament uses the language of pain, anger, and confusion and moves toward God” (Dan Allender, Mars Hill Review).

I’ve heard it once said that complaining is whining to someone else about God whereas lament is bringing our case to God. Do you see how that’s a sign of faith? The psalmist goes from drought to drowning, and he keeps talking to a God that feels absent.

Do you know who is an unlikely story of lament? Mother Teresa. No, let me say it this way: The Mother Teresa. That’s how we think of her, right? But, did you know that she had a deep crisis of faith that lasted for 40 years? As they were perusing her letters after her death, they found a series of correspondence that began nearly around the time she arrived to start her work in Calcutta. In one of those letters, this is how she expressed her lament:

“Lord, my God, you have thrown [me] away as unwanted – unloved. I call, I cling, I want, and there is no one to answer, no, no one. Alone. Where is my faith? even deep down right in there is nothing. I have no faith. I dare not utter the words and thoughts that crowd in my heart. I am told God loves me, and yet the reality of the darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul.”

Mother Teresa knew how to pray the blues. While she fought to never complain, her life was wrought with struggle, and if this is you, I think it’s safe to say you’re in good company.

Praying the Blues

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[SERIES: Part 1 of 3]

At some off-the-map place, on September 16, 1925, in a plantation down around the Mississippi Delta, Riley B. King was born. We know him by his legendary stage name: B.B. King. This man—the man behind Lucille, his black Gibson guitar—was shaped by the care of his mother, Nora Ella King, who made sure King was refined by Elkhorn Primitive Baptist Church and the preaching of Luther Henson. He was taught the church songbook full of gospels and spirituals.

And like every black man in Mississippi, B.B. King grew up knowing another king in the south: King Cotton, a slogan thrown around by pre-civil war politicians to highlight the importance of the cotton trade in the south’s economy. Even though more than 50 years had passed since the end of the Civil War, B.B. King was mentored in the blues first and foremost by the voices of African American men and women singing those church songs with large sacks hung over their shoulders, going through rows and rows of cotton.

It was heat, cotton, family, racial injustice, and, lest we forget, the church that formed this man. Beauty and chaos that formed his songs. And though, on May 14, 2015, at 89 years of age, he passed away, he keeps on teaching us to sing songs and to pray prayers that we have far too often forgotten.

Like most blues songs, King’s music forces the pain and brokenness we know all too well into the light. They bring a realism to how the past impacts the present. Old relationships leave scars. Social injustices still prevail. And while King was brilliant in bringing this pain to bear, he wasn’t all that original. What King and others have called the blues, Scripture has always called lament.

While we may not all sing with King Everyday I Have the Blues, we all know the feeling when King sings The Thrill Is Gone. We’ve felt a righteous dissatisfaction with the way things are in the valleys of the shadow of death. A holy discontent. But is it ok to sing the blues just because we chalk the word “holy” onto the uncomfortable word “discontent”? Because it kind of feels like complaining at times, and who wants to be a whiner?

What do we do? When the shrapnel of a broken world knocks the wind out of us, and we feel like we can barely breathe—let alone pray—how do we keep praying? When life transitions to a minor key, we take a note from the Psalms once again. We need to pray the blues. But how?

There is one lament—which spans two psalms, Psalm 42 and 43—that is just the one to help us figure it out. The psalmist is going to guide us a little further in the landscape of prayer: what it looks like to pray our longing in the drought, in the depths, and in the dwelling.

THE DROUGHT

The psalmist begins his prayer in verse 1 with the image of a deer in the midst of drought, searching for water. The word used to describe the deer is “panting.” A sort of shortness of breath that comes as a result of frantically running from this place to that. In desperation, its tongue is sticking to the roof of its mouth, hoping water is just around the corner.

But he’s not looking for literal water. Listen again to Psalm 42:1-3:

As a deer pants for flowing streams,
so pants my soul for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God,
for the living God.
When shall I come and appear before God?
My tears have been my food
day and night,
while they say to me all the day long,
“Where is your God?”

The psalmist’s whole life is unraveling, and he’s desperately looking for God. Yet it’s as if God is nowhere to be found. Feeling alone in the mess, the psalmist isn’t sleeping, and he isn’t eating. Disillusioned  and broken tears are the only thing he’s eating, and to top it off, with every new sunrise, instead of the rooster crowing, he hears from those around him: “God still hasn’t showed up yet, huh?”

Have you ever been there?

It’s in these moments that if our only authentic option is to pray the blues, we’d rather just stay quiet and keep to ourselves. Why? Because we convince ourselves that it’s all our fault. We believe the blues could have been avoided if we would have just done the right things.

But that’s not what we find here. Instead, at the heart of being a child of God comes the freedom to lament. We are free to admit that there are certain things broken in the world that I didn’t break, and there are certain things in life that I can’t do anything to fix. And when you are your most thirsty, that’s when your soul needs to be poured out in prayer. Sounds counter-intuitive, right? But when you are your most thirsty, that’s when your soul needs to be poured out in prayer.

Why? Because keeping quiet makes it worse. There is an article in The Onion, a mockumentary news site, titled, “Study: Pretending Everything’s Okay Works.”

CAMBRIDGE, MA—A study released Thursday by researchers at Harvard University’s Department of Psychology has found that the simple act of pretending one’s life is not in complete shambles threatening to collapse at any moment…works. “Even when everything is coming apart at the seams and disaster is almost certainly imminent, putting up a good front for friends and loved ones makes everything better,” said Professor Christine Wanamaker, who explained that smiling a lot and evasive answers were usually enough to get by. “Tell everyone that things are fine, and they will be fine. Just don’t over-think it.” When asked about her study’s methodology, Wanamaker said the research was rock-solid, had been looked over by a bunch of scientists, and definitely wasn’t anything to worry about.

We can laugh at this, because it sounds ridiculous when you put it that way. But the reality is that many times in our own lives we actually live like that, and sometimes we can even treat church like that too. I’ve heard from folks before how they didn’t want to come to church on a particular Sunday because they couldn’t put on a smile when they walked through the doors. “Everyone else seems to have it together, and I just don’t want to be a burden.”

You can’t live like that. It seems like you’re expected to have it together in our culture. But we all know that no matter how big the smile is on the outside, we don’t have it together. None of us do. There are times we feel miserable. There are times when we just feel far from God. When injustice rocks our world and we can barely stand. There’s a reason that a majority of the 150 psalms in Scripture are prayers of laments, and as the church, we are called to be a lamenting community. A safe place. A people where those who are struggling with depression, loss, death, disease, frustration with injustice—you name it—can come and pour out their souls.

We need to pray the blues. When you are most thirsty, that’s when your soul needs to be poured out in prayer. Let it ring out.

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Continue to read in PARTs 2 & 3 of this series as we talk more about what it looks like to pray our longing in the drought, in the depths, and in the dwelling.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]