All Things New

One of our pastors preached a striking sermon from Ephesians 2:1-10 this past Sunday. Her insightful exegesis and exposition of that text pointed out three things: Who we were before God got hold of us, who we are now because God got hold of us, and how that work, which only God can do, changed us and is changing us so thoroughly from the inside out. 

This can only best be characterized as transformation: From one reality to another, from one identity to another, from one purpose to another, and from one destiny to another.

She crystalized Paul’s own words to us by citing three structural moments in his argument: YOU WERE…BUT GOD… WE ARE. As the passage unfolds, we learn that because of the greatest of loves, out of the richness of complete grace, and in accordance with sovereign design, God moved on us and in us to bring us from death to life, and to walk us out of the dark places we couldn’t even recognize entombed us. 

Our need of God is not partial, but total. Like any other dead person, we were helpless to reinvigorate and rescue ourselves. BUT GOD had other plans, and did for us the unique work of transformation—of re-creation no less dramatic and effective than breathing, into the formed nostrils of a lump of clay, life, vitality, being. But Adam’s creation did not end the story. That auspicious beginning went awry through human disobedience and sin, leading to alienation and death for all of us.

BUT GOD from the beginning planned a remedy: Through the Second Adam a recreation of all things. This transformation, by divine decree, from death to life is still working its way in us and, indeed, in all creation, until such time, in God’s time, a new heaven and earth become the new reality.

Revelation 21:5 affirms and confirms the truth that, in God’s good time, all things—and it really does mean ALL THINGS—will become new. The One who was seated on the throne said, “See I am making all things new.”He also said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true” Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a free gift from the spring of the water of life.” We bear this in mind in the face of evil in the world, through change, pain, and loss, despite weariness, loneliness, and even despair.

As the old hymn says, “Alpha and Omega, beginning and the end, God is making all things new. Springs of living water shall wash away each tear. He is making all things new.”

All Things New  

Light after darkness, gain after loss,

Strength after weakness, crown after cross;

Sweet after bitter, hope after fears,

Home after wand’ring, praise after tears.

Alpha and Omega, beginning and the end, he is making all things new.

Springs of living water shall wash away each tear. He is making all things new.

Sight after myst’ry, sun after rain,

Joy after sorrow, peace after pain;

Near after distant, gleam after gloom,

Love after loneliness, life after tomb.                                                    

Frances Ridley Havergal (1836-1879) based on Revelation 21:5-6

Michael Denham

Our Heart to God’s Ear

Rabbinic tradition offers the perspective that prayer is a process… one of asking God to make his will our will.

We too often get this perspective exactly backwards. In our self-centered and instantly gratifying ways, prayer becomes a process of asking God to make our will his will.

On our journey of faith, it’s the transforming power of the Holy Spirit through Christian discipleship that clarifies our perspective and sharpens our vision of what God wants to do in us and through us for his greater glory and our good.

Gracious God, we are grateful for access to you that you grant us through your Son our Savior. He is our priest, our advocate, our intercessor, our master, our teacher, our pattern, our Lord. He taught us a new way to pray, coming to you and calling on you – his Father – as our Father. In this new intimacy, we do not presume familiarity, but we find security, identity, and destiny in your warm embrace. Through Christ our Lord we pray. Amen.

I’d say that the most difficult habit to sustain in Christian living is a regular prayer life. Everything seems to get in the way, and by the end of a day, so many things have crowded and crammed themselves into my moments, that prayer becomes an afterthought. Sometimes I feel guilty about this, as if there were some arbitrary standard of involvement of which I’ve once again fallen seriously short.

More often – and I believe this is more consistent with God’s own hopes for us – I feel shortchanged for having spent too little time praying. (“Gee, I could’ve had a V-8” sort of response.) There’s something in the moments of private prayer that’s different than time spent in study, or corporate worship, or fellowship, or service.

Ideally, these elements of Christian discipleship and growth interface, coalesce, cross-pollinate and work in tandem. But there’s something about the existential moments of prayer that offer unique glimpses through the window between earth and heaven. I believe God’s designed it to be this way.

Now, there are all kinds of prayers. No one size fits all. I think of author Anne Lamott’s  two favorite missiles, “Help me! Help me! Help me!” and “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!” These actually may be closer to our everyday experience than we’d care to admit.

I think of Presbyterian pastor and preacher Donald Grey Barnhouse’s pre-meal graces, “Lord, we thank you for your many blessings to us each day, for this wonderful meal, particularly for the roast beef and mashed potatoes, and not quite so much for the Brussels sprouts.”

I think of Christian communicator and educator Howard Hendricks, who was deeply involved in men’s ministries over the years, telling of a riveting exchange during an early morning small group Bible Study. When it came time for prayer, each one around the circle in succession began to pray in a way that sounded a little too much like a graduate seminar in systematic theology, until it came to the new guy in the group.

After a lengthy, awkward, sweaty-collar pause, he began, haltingly, “Lord…this is Sam… I’m the one who came to know you last week…I don’t really know how to do this… I just want you to know how lost I was before last week…and how grateful I am that you found me.” Professor Hendricks said that in that thunderstruck moment, a room full of seasoned, even “professional” pray-ers, wanted to hide their fat heads under the table.

Yes, there are all kinds of prayers. But there’s a pattern for praying offered to us by our Lord himself, in Matthew 6.

Before he offers the disciples this pattern, Jesus cautions us about two things: Hypocrisy and insincerity.

     Whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly, I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

What do we think Jesus is saying here? I’d suggest two things.

Prayer has an audience of one. Others may hear it. They may be moved by it. They may even enter into it. But they don’t ultimately hear it. Prayers offered to be impressive to others run the risk of not making it past the ceiling tiles.

Prayer moves from the human heart to God’s ear. It’s intelligent, but not necessarily intellectual. It’s emotional, but not necessarily ecstatic. It’s personal, yet anything but proud. At best it comes from that center point in each of us where heart, soul, mind and strength interplay and meld. It’s authentic. It’s honest. It’s direct.

I’d make a third observation based on what Jesus says next.

There’s nothing in our prayers that surprises God. What does Jesus say? “Your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”

The eyes of the Lord range throughout the entire earth to strengthen those whose heart is true to him.

He who watches over Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps.

No eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived,what God has prepared for those who love him. 

God is omniscient, omnipresent, sovereign, able, willing, wise, and loving. The impressive thing about being God is not needing a lot of help. He knows what we need.

There’s far more to unpack in Jesus’ model prayer than is possible in these short comments, but I do believe that in his pattern we can discern a few things that help keep all the theology in clear context.

First, there’s acknowledgment that God is God and we’re not. God is holy, and God is wholly other than us. Yet God is known to us because he’s revealed his name. God is transcendent in being, in power, and in authority. Yet, explicitly in Jesus’ prayer, God is Father and, implicitly, God is immanent and intimate to us, available in more depth and more ways than we even imagine.

Second, there’s attitude based on such acknowledgment: attitude of creature to creator, subject to sovereign, and lesser to greater, but, all the while, child to loving parent.

As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on us; he remembers our frame, that we are only dust.

What one of you does not want to give good gifts to your children?

Sometimes we just can’t get our minds wrapped around the idea of intimate relationship with God. It’s as if, when we pray, we recoil from fear that God will say, “Oh, it’s Joe, Oh, it’s Jane. Quick, Gabriel, go get the whip!”

Nothing could be farther from the truth! The attitude of Jesus’ prayer is intimate and secure.

Third, there’s adjustment. Recognizing our dependence on God is not a sign of weakness, but an indication we know where our strength truly lies.

It’s like the Dad watching his little boy trying to lift a far too heavy stone.

“Are you using all you strength, son? Are you sure that you’re using all your strength? Do you remember that my strength is also yours if you want it.”

Recognizing our sin before God and need of forgiveness doesn’t send us cowering away from a ruthless, vengeful deity. Rather, it compels us to trust God’s grace as the only way to receive the blessing of God’s holiness. Recognizing our place as forgiven children of God doesn’t drive us to haughty comparisons with others. Instead, it calls us to offer forgiveness even as we’ve freely received it.

Must all our prayers closely follow Jesus’ pattern to be legitimate petitions that reach heaven’s throne? No. But acknowledgement of our complete need before God and God’s complete provision for us brings us thirsty to the well of living waters. An attitude of child to Father assures us that we’ll receive, perhaps not all we ask for, but everything we need. Adjustments we make in the way we treat each other demonstrate our recognition of just how far God came to redeem and rescue us.

Prayer then becomes less a way to motivate or manipulate God, less a way to bang on the door of heaven, and more a process of accepting God’s gracious embrace in Christ; of acknowledging that our dependence on God isn’t partial, but total; all leading to a life of actively gracing others with the same favor we’ve freely received.

Through prayer as Jesus taught us to pray, we draw closer and closer to God, assuming a posture that the rabbis astutely recognized as fundamental: His will our own.

Michael Denham

For Sake of the Joy

            We all know—each of us in our own way—what it is to feel alone, left behind, even abandoned or forsaken. These are emotions common to us.

            Jesus also knew real human joys and sorrows. He celebrated at weddings. He wept at funerals. He grew deeply weary during his temptation in the wilderness.

He chided his disciples for falling asleep as he was despairing in the Garden of Gethsemane. So when Jesus cried out from the cross, his depth of emotion was fully human.

“Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani!”

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

This is the only one of Christ’s seven last words recorded by more than one Gospel. Both Matthew and Mark record this anguished cry of dereliction. And of all his seven words, this is the only one they mention.

Of his prayers recorded in Scripture, only in this one does Jesus not address God as “Father.” Over and over again, he taught disciples and crowds alike that, with God— the Creator of all things, the Holy One of Israel—a tender, intimate, and trusting relationship is available. Jesus taught that it is God’s preferred relationship with us: one full of awe but free from fear, not austere and aloof, not held at arms length, but one characterized by an embrace of kindness and mercy, grace and love.

            So it is striking, in this most anguished and painful moment, Jesus does not call to God as “Abba” or “Father,” but as “Eloi.”

            “Eloi” is the everyday Aramaic form of the generic Hebrew root for “God.” It is the least intimate, least relational of biblical names for God. Neither does Jesus cry out to God as “Adonai”—LORD—the name that reminded Israel of God’s faithfulness and covenantal loyalty.

            In this supreme moment of stress and test, we might expect Jesus to call to God in his familiar fashion—as “Father”—yet he does not.

            His chosen words actually quote the beginning lines of Psalm 22. By the time of his life and ministry, this psalm was embraced as a Messianic psalm, one that in cryptic but specific ways pointed to Israel’s coming Messiah. Some argue, then, that Jesus’ cry is best understood as fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy.

            Yet even formal fulfillment of prophecy does not lessen the personal force of Jesus’ exclamation. Even as he fulfills prophecy of that ancient oracle, he is trusting, depending, literally hanging on the truth of God’s Word.

Yet still he cries out:

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

            The layers of meaning here are rich and deep. As it was originally on the psalmist’s lips, so also with Jesus it is the cry of a righteous person suffering. Yet even in the face of the psalmist’s or the Savior’s suffering it affirms by faith that God will surely, somehow rescue and vindicate. Underneath his anguish and his sense of abandonment and aloneness, there is Jesus’ faith in God’s power, God’s character, and God’s promise.

            Here, on the fulcrum of history, and at the very heart of it all is the theological crux of the matter, as cosmic forces of good and evil, sin and sacrifice, curse and blessing are being brought to terms once and for all at Calvary.

            At Calvary the love of God meets the high bar of God’s holiness. At Calvary the mercy of God pierces the darkness of all human sin. At Calvary the grace of God supplies all that we lack. At Calvary the sovereign love of God the Father, the sacrificing love of God the Son, and the sustaining love of God the Holy Spirit are at work together on our behalf.

            We don’t pretend to understand all that occurred in that moment on Calvary, yet we affirm the blessing of Christ’s saving work there for us, and its promise of eternal life.

St. Peter writes, “Christ himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that free from sins, we might live for righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed… Christ suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you back to God.”

            Donald Grey Barnhouse, an eminent Presbyterian preacher of the last century illustrated Christ’s saving work—how Christ rescued us from the destructive and damning effects of sin—by telling the story of a farmer, who one day looked across his fields to see them ablaze, with flames racing toward his barns and house. He rushed to set a backfire in hopes of salvaging what he could. After the crisis had passed, as he walked through the smoldering rubble, he looked down and saw the charred body of a mother hen, wings outstretched. He sadly turned over her remains with the toe of his boot, only to see her chicks run out from underneath, unharmed.

            The saving work of God through him came as no surprise to Jesus. Had he not told his disciples, “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”

            Yet the prospect of such work, of such a role, was daunting and grievous, even to the Son of God. Had he not prayed that his Father, if possible, might let the cup pass from him? Was it not the sheer weight of his work—both the prospects of it during his dark and torturous hours before Golgotha, and the actual passing of it in the crucifixion—was it not the sheer unprecedented, unequalled weight of his unique work that propelled him to cry

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

            His cry recognizes actual judicial separation from God the Father, as God the Son becomes the atoning sacrifice for human sin. But it also affirms, in the face of dire distress, a genuine, continuing, eternal relationship. The NT book of Hebrews says that Jesus, “…for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame…”

            It would be difficult not to imagine, even as he cried out prophetic and personal words of anguish from the Psalms, that even deeper within Jesus re-echoed the Father’s words at his baptism, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

            Commenting on the drama unfolding at Calvary, the 19th century Scottish writer George MacDonald says,

            Jesus could not see, could not feel God near, and yet it is “My God”that he cries. Thus the will of Jesus, in the very moment when his faith seems about to yield is finally triumphant. It has no feeling now to support it, no vision to absorb it. It stands naked in his soul and tortured…Pure and simple—and surrounded by fire—it declares for God.

May we find even the smallest portion of such faith—according to Jesus, all we really need—as during Holy Week and beyond we meditate on Christ’s cross, and in turn as we accept his invitation to take up our own and follow him.

Michael Denham

That Faraway Hill

When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. John 19:30

Today is Good Friday, both the nadir and zenith of events in our Lord’s passion. It is beyond our mortal categories and capacities to adequately, much less fully, comprehend all that happened on that Jerusalem hill “without a city wall.” Yet we notice that Jesus’ sixth “word” from the cross is a curious thing: “It is finished.”

One might well have expected him to say, “I am finished.” At that point of complete exhaustion, of excruciating pain, of apparent failure and humiliation, no one has ever had more reason to cry out, “Enough! I’m spent! I’m undone! I’m finished!

But at that focal point of history, the Son of God and Savior of the world focused not on his mortal predicament, but on his immortal purpose, the work to which he had been called, the work he had been sent to do, the work culminating on that fulcrum of salvation we call Calvary. Held in the balance there, offered in the exchange there, was his life for ours.

The larger Biblical witness emphasizes that Jesus had a real sense of his identity. In whatever way was necessary, he knew who he was.

As a 12 year old boy, he astonished learned religious leaders in the Temple with his wisdom and depth of insight, and he admonished Mary and Joseph who had anxiously hurried back to Jerusalem after they had discovered he was missing:

“Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2:49)

As a young man in his hometown synagogue in Nazareth, he flatly declared that Old Testament prophecy pointed directly at him, as he read to them from Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  Everyone knew what he was saying. Their eyes were fixed on him, as he sat down and said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:16-21)

When an outcast Samaritan woman at a well bantered with him about religion, and said, “I know that Messiah is coming. When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us,” Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one speaking to you.” (John 4:25-26)

When his disciples said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied,” Jesus responded, “Have I been with you all this time, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14:8-9)

Before the Jewish Sanhedrin the night before his crucifixion, when the high priest demanded an answer, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” Jesus said, “I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power and coming with the clouds of heaven.” (Mark 14:61-62)

The Biblical witness also emphasizes that Jesus had a real sense of his calling. In whatever way was necessary, he knew what he had been sent to do.

As he taught his disciples, he said, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep… For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.” (John 10:11-18)

While he was for the last time on his way to Jerusalem, he drew his disciples aside and said, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified; and on the third day he will be raised.” (Matthew 20:17-18)

And in prayer for his disciples before his betrayal, Jesus said, Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you… I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.” (John 17: 1-5)

It is with all this sense of identity, calling, authority, and destiny, amidst the agony of Golgotha, that Jesus cries out “Tetelestai” – “It is finished.”

Christ’s saving, redeeming, justifying, reconciling, sacrificial work of love was accomplished. In that moment the grace and mercy and love of God was dealing with the holiness, righteousness and sovereign justice of God on our behalf.

God the Father’s strong arm of forbearance, like a great dam which had contained and restrained the force of all human sin, lifted, and the weight of that sin came upon God the Son, who alone was worthy and able to suffer its effect.

This is the work that Jesus had been sent to do. This is the work that Jesus alone could do. This is the work of which the New Testament book of Hebrews speaks: When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.

None of us can know all that occurred in that work. None of us can know all that transpired in that historical moment within the eternal Holy Trinity. What we can know is what happened for us in the process. We are forgiven. We are reconciled to God. We are made children of God. We receive abundant and eternal life.

Christ’s saving work for us is done. It is finished.

There is a green hill far away, without a city wall,

     And there our Lord was crucified; he drank the bitter gall.

We may not know, we cannot tell what pains he had to bear,

     But we believe it was for us he hung and suffered there.

He died that we might be forgiv’n, he died to make us free,

     Forever free from sin and guilt to live eternally.

How dearly, dearly has he loved! How can we e’er repay?

     Our very lives are far too small to match the price he paid on that green hill far away.

Cecil Alexander

Michael Denham

An Advent Affirmation

My church is firmly part of Reformation heritage and Reformed tradition. This partly means that our worship is architecturally and theologically oriented toward coming into God’s presence, hearing what God has to say, and responding to God in gratitude, witness, and service.

Worship components within this framework can vary to one degree or another, but I am always blessed by the weekly presence of two bedrock elements: Confession and Affirmation. Corporate confession offers all and each of us concrete opportunity to tell the truth about ourselves, and to name with our lips what God already knows is in our hearts. Corporate affirmation orients us around what together we believe, and how that shapes who we truly are.

We most often articulate our Christian tenets of faith through use of historical or universal statements such as the Apostles’ Creed or Nicene Creed. Regular use of these texts grounds and includes us in what most of the Church has affirmed for the longest time.

Occasionally we use statements more particularly tailored to a worship service or season at hand, for example, use of portions of a psalm, words of our Lord himself such as The Beatitiudes, or excisions from other creeds such as the Heidelberg Cathechism:

Question One: What is your only comfort in life and in death?

Answer: That I am not my own, but belong body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from all the power of the devil. He also preserves me in such a way that without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, all things must work together for my salvation. Therefore, by his Holy Spirit he also assures me of eternal life and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for him.

During the Advent season my congregation sometimes uses a statement of faith written far more recently. It can be adopted as an “Advent” or “Christmas” Affirmation during this holy season of contemplation and celebration.

     We believe in one God, whose almighty word brought forth the universe,

          who speaks to us by his Spirit through what he has created

          and through what has been written for us in Holy Scripture.

     We believe that at just the right moment in time,

          God’s Word became flesh in the life of Jesus of Nazareth,

               who was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit,

and born of the Virgin Mary.

     We believe that this good news of great joy which heralded Jesus’ birth

          also points us to the cross on which Jesus died, and to his empty tomb.

          There the angel’s message “He is risen!”

               heralded the glorious good news of Christ’s resurrection.

     We believe that this same Jesus is alive to meet us every day,

          and to offer us new and abundant life.

     We rejoice in the knowledge that he will one day return

to rule in righteousness, to renew the earth, and to claim us as God’s own.

Michael Denham

A General Approach

In his weighty book, American Caesar, William Manchester recounts the story of perhaps America’s most consequential military leader, Douglas MacArthur. Favorably compared to strategists such as Wellington and Napoleon, MacArthur was a brilliant if complicated leader. He aroused deep reaction among both his admirers and detractors, but few denied his courage or abilities.

In service and a career that spanned two world wars, during which time he rose to the rank of “General of the Army,” he also was a devoted husband and father who evidently saw his larger than life role in life positioned under authority of heaven and guided by God’s almighty hand.

Even in the midst of planning and leading all American and Allied forces in recapturing and liberating the South Pacific, and under the weight of responsibility to his troops, to his country, and indeed to the world, he doted on his young son Arthur, and invested himself in his welfare and growth.

Manchester records a prayer the General wrote late one evening for Arthur. It is a model of fatherly devotion and dependence:

“Build me a son, O Lord, who will be strong enough to know when he is weak, and brave enough to face himself when he is afraid, one who will be proud and unbending in honest defeat, and humble and gentle in victory. Build me a son whose wishes will not take the place of deeds; a son who will know Thee – and that to know himself is the foundation stone of knowledge. Lead him, I pray, not in the path of ease and comfort, but under the stress and spur of difficulties and challenge. Here let him learn to stand up in the storm, here let him learn compassion for those who fail. Build me a son whose heart will be clear, whose goal will be high; a son who will master himself before he seeks to master other men; one who will reach into the future, yet never forget the past. And after all these things are his, add, I pray, enough of a sense of humor, so that he may always be serious, yet never take himself too seriously. Give him humility, so that he may always remember the simplicity of true greatness, the open mind of true wisdom, and the weakness of true strength. Then I, his father, will dare to whisper, “I have not lived in vain.”

Michael Denham


For our fellow Americans, and indeed millions more around the world, this weekend marked a somber day of remembrance and reflection twenty years after the heinous terrorist attacks that struck the heart of our country. Destroyed were buildings and airplanes, along with innumerable lives of those who perished, and those left behind to search through the rubble of an uncertain future without loved ones who had been snatched from them.

How many times we have since cried, “Why? Why, Lord?” would be incalculable. Trying to make sense of it all bewilders us. So much that happened is simply beyond the limits of our normal categories.

The following Sunday churches overflowed with people seeking reassurance, seeking community, even seeking answers. Our congregation in Washington, DC found no small comfort in Psalm 46 preached from our pulpit, “God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved,” and in the hope against hope conviction of that same psalm, “God is our refuge and strength,

a very present help in trouble.” But the gnawing question still lingered, “What would bring someone—anyone—to plan and carry out such a diabolical and self-absorbed plan against others?”

The Old Testament prophet Jeremiah distills the clearest and most concise answer: The human heart is desperately wicked above all things—who can know it? (17:9) Holy Scripture clearly affirms that human beings were created good. We are part of God’s good creation, indeed made uniquely in God’s image, and declared “very good.” But something happened that marred that image, and changed the subsequent course of history: Human disobedience and sin.

It is a biblical given that sin plagues the human race as a corruption of God’s original blueprint, an insidious virus in our spiritual DNA that, apart from God’s power to forgive, transform, and guide, can lead us astray or even control us. It is at the root of all human propensity to think and do evil, spanning the spectrum from the seemingly innocuous “little white lie” to the most insidious megalomania and genocide.

In his great work of religious satire, The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis writes of spiritual warfare seen through the eyes of Screwtape and Wormwood, two conniving and sometimes comical minions of the Devil. By their pernicious bumbling Lewis stands everything on its head: Good is bad and bad is good. God is “the Enemy Above,” while Satan is “Our Father below.” In one letter to his junior assistant, Screwtape effectively sums it all up:

To us a human is basically food; our aim is the absorption of its will

Into ours, the increase of our area of selfhood at its expense. But the

obedience which the Enemy demands of men is quite a different thing.

One must face the fact that all the talk about His love for men, and His

service being perfect freedom, is not (as one would gladly believe) mere

propaganda, but an appalling truth. He really does want to fill the

universe with a lot of loathsome little replicas of Himself—creatures

whose life, on its miniature scale, will be qualitatively like his own,

not because he has absorbed them, but because their wills freely conform

to His. We want cattle who can finally become food. He wants servants

who can finally become sons.[i]

This gracious adoptive process stands as a beacon against the darkness that sin brings—darkness

in the human heart that creeps into every level of human relationship and society, darkness that can bring such horrific destruction that we finally pay enough attention to cry out, “Why? Why, Lord?”

The psalmist writes, “I waited patiently for the Lord: He inclined to me and heard my cry.” (40:1)

God bends to listen as we bow in need and trust. In his almighty mercy, God urges us, “Make the call!”

[i] C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, New York: HarperCollins (2021): 38-39

Mercy More than Life

When I still was a young fellow in school, in my home state there was a famous football player at the University of Oklahoma by the name of Bob Kalsu. Bob was from a small town, but through hard work and his steady exploits on the gridiron, he became known throughout our region, and indeed across the country, as one of the premiere offensive linemen in the nation.

As I recall he was a consensus All-American at his position. He was drafted into the National Football League by the Buffalo Bills, where he was named their rookie of the year, and similarly attained all-star status. Everyone followed his career. Everyone was proud of him.

But Bob Kalsu’s time in the sun coincided with the war in Vietnam. So he voluntarily left his teammates and joined our military forces to do what he considered to be his duty as an artillery officer in southeast Asia.

As you might guess, Bob eventually and tragically was killed as the result of a fateful attack and explosion. He was the only active NFL player to that point to die in combat. It wasn’t long before this tragic news filtered back with sorrowful effect to Buffalo and to Oklahoma.

You may recall from the end of the movie Chariots of Fire, when Scottish Olympic runner and later missionary Eric Liddle later lost his life in occupied China during WW II, it said “all of Scotland mourned.” When Bob Kalsu was killed, all Oklahoma mourned.

Not too long afterward, I was working a summer job in my Dad’s commercial laundry and cleaning business—at age 14 or 15 mostly just trying to stay out of trouble. One morning he came to me and, put his arm around my shoulder, and said, “Come with me for a moment, I want to show you something.”

Unbeknownst to me was that Bob Kalsu’s family had sent his clothing to my Dad’s Oklahoma City plant for a final cleaning and packaging. There among his effects was his official Oklahoma Sooners letter jacket—you know the kind—filled with unspoken but treasured memories of significant achievements: Team member, team captain, all-conference player, All-American.

There was a lump in my throat as I ran my fingers along those sleeves, as other employees and fans also left their work stations for a moment and gathered around in quiet, reverent admiration. Bob was famous, but he was one of us, and beloved.

After moving to Washington, DC so many years later, I early on made a point of visiting the Vietnam War Memorial, where I was able to locate, among all the chiseled names of fallen heroes, the name “James Robert Kalsu.” I traced the letters with my finger, recalling yet again the valor, the sacrifice, the sense of purpose.

Today’s worship at The National Presbyterian Church focused in part on themes of Memorial Day. In both services we included the hymn, “O Beautiful for Spacious Skies,” emphasizing particularly its third verse:

                        O beautiful for heroes proved

                        In liberating strife,

                        Who more than self their country loved,

                        And mercy more than life!

                        America! America! May God thy gold refine

                        Till all success be nobleness, and every gain divine.

This is my favorite national hymn, with its deeply stirring tune Materna, but it always is the searing phrase “mercy more than life” that catches me up short every time. What does it really mean to love “mercy more than life.”?

The answer to this question may well lie down many different paths, but singing and weighing it again brought to my mind some cryptic words of the late and esteemed preacher and one-time president of both Denver and Gordon-Conwell seminaries, Haddon Robinson. Dr. Robinson famously insisted,

            You’ve no doubt heard it said, “After all, a man’s gotta live…”

                 But actually this is a lie straight from hell.

            Nowhere is it written that a man has to live.

                 A man has to die and face God’s judgment,

                      but nowhere does it say that he has to live.

            Multitudes of heroes have made the ultimate sacrifice,

                 and paid the ultimate price in witness to the truth

          that some things are more important than life.

Our Lord himself of course said, “Greater love has no one than this that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13), and all of this is ultimately rooted in the truth of Micah 6…

            With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high?

                 Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,

                      with yearling calves?

                 Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,

                      with ten thousand rivers of oil?

                 Shall I give him my firstborn for my transgression,

                      the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?

            He has told you, O mortal, what is good;

                 and what does the Lord require of you

                      but to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.

                                                                                                                     Michael Denham

Lenten Lens

Late pastor and author Eugene Peterson said, “Every congregation is a congregation of sinners. As if that weren’t bad enough, they all have sinners for pastors.”

I must say how grateful I am that worship in our own congregation always includes confession of sin, a vital time of telling the truth about ourselves to God, perhaps to each other, and certainly to ourselves. It’s a matter of acknowledging with our lips what God already knows is in our hearts. Lest we think this is an ancient anachronism for modern worship, we’re reminded by the Old Testament prophet, “The human heart is desperately wicked above all things; who can know it? (Jeremiah 17:9)

In God’s mercy we’re not left alone to despair over this predicament. Another Old Testament prophet speaks for the Almighty: “Come, let us reason together, says, the Lord; though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.” (Isaiah 1:18)

The trajectory from “desperately wicked” to “white as snow” necessarily moves from repentance to forgiveness, to restoration, but we’re assured that one follows the other as closely as our next heartbeat or breath: “If we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9)

Lent is typically thought of as a season for relinquishing or giving up something as a sign of our devotion to God or the seriousness of our Christian discipleship, and there indeed may be patterns or practices that we need to jettison in favor of unencumbered, unfettered fellowship with God and with each other. This likely is part of what it means to be “consecrated,” set apart for particular, for special, for holy use.

But our holiness is determined, not by how our life stacks up against someone else’s, nor by minute attention to keeping a daunting set of rules, nor by trying over and over to scrub off what we think or know are sinful stains. St. Paul himself said, “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” (Romans 7:19).

The Apostle recognized that there remains—even within our redeemed lives—a battle between good intentions and weak or willful capitulation, between supple obedience and stiff-necked resistance, between spirit and flesh and, ultimately, between life and death. Paul cries out, “Wretch that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” To this he quickly offers the only real remedy: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:24-25). It’s a matter of grace alone, and trusting by faith in that gift of God.

Discovering how in our daily lives we can unwrap that free gift is nevertheless an appropriate Lenten quest. It’s been said that the Christian life is not the most difficult life we can lead. It’s actually impossible apart from the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. This ought not surprise or frighten us. Christian living is a supernaturally-enabled process of the Spirit indwelling, filling, convicting, transforming, leading, guiding, gifting, and comforting which is at work at our very center—at the controlling interest within us—bringing true liberty and release. Thanks be to God indeed!

Paul expands in Romans 8, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death.”

During a liturgical season often governed by self-reflection and evaluation, this striking and enduring promise of peace with God and with ourselves offers each of us the clearest view possible as we peer intently ahead through a Lenten lens.

Michael Denham

Just Below the Surface

In music there’s something called “harmonic rhythm.” We’re all generally familiar with the basic idea of rhythm, but usually as a property of what’s happening on the surface of the music. Rhythmic designs and differences in the relative length and positioning of notes in a piece help lead us to perceive and understand for example whether it’s a march, a waltz, a polka, or a mokhtar samba.

Harmonic rhythm is more about what happens beneath the surface. It’s more structural. It focuses attention on segments or architectural areas of harmony. It helps define larger or broader swaths of musical movement and direction.

This sub-surface movement is typically slower than what’s happening up top. We can remember when we got to go to the pool as kids how we would sometimes put on goggles and go underwater. Down there was like another world. We were surrounded by smooth, gentle quietness, aware of but away from the splashing, screaming, choppiness, and gleeful noise of our playmates.

Or think of the most raging storm at sea violently tossing great ships like so many matchsticks. All the while, only a few feet beneath that mortal peril, again can be found another world relatively unfazed by the turmoil and tumult above.

If you’re a surface sailor, storms really get your attention. You could be fighting for your life pretty much at a moment’s notice. Being prepared is an essential element of survival. Surface sailors do all they can to avoid that “sinking feeling.”

Submariners on the other hand experience submerging as a natural part of their professional habitat. They must like it down there in the dark and the quiet. They train hard and well, in the common parlance, to “run silent, run deep.” They learn to be in touch with a whole different set of sounds, rhythms, and senses upon which their own effectiveness and survival also depend. Their skills in navigating the world beneath the waves also work together to give them a window on the world above for tactical or strategic reasons.

In terms of Christian patterns, this is not to suggest that we seek a retreat from surface realities of our lives to an insular alternate reality of denial or protective self-deception. It is to call us to awareness that deeper understanding and fundamental meaning can be found in what undergirds or underflows us at any given moment.

One of the earliest heresies that first challenged Christians essentially argued that Jesus came to relieve or remove us from turbulence, to help us rise above the 24/7 challenges of our everyday lives to a different existential place or plane where we could become privy to some sort of special spiritual knowledge or understanding. It’s easy to imagine the attractiveness of such an offer then or now. Life is often difficult. But Jesus didn’t lower a rescue ladder from heaven so we could climb up and out of our circumstances. He climbed down to join us in their midst where he could redeem them and make all things—including us—new.

The last year has been a tumultuous and disorienting time for many or most of us. The metaphors of stormy seas or jarring music may seem all too apt. Safe harbor or soothing harmony for us may momentarily be undetectable. We find ourselves seeing or hearing only what confronts us—towering swells or rhythms of life that seem to be at cross purposes.

Yet by God’s grace we can seek meaning—indeed identity, security, and destiny—just below the surface of the turbulence facing us, trusting by faith in the purposes of the Eternal One who loves us, and of his Son our Savior standing with us in our small, vulnerable boat sovereignly declaring to the waves and to our hearts, “Peace, be still!”    

                                                                                                            Michael Denham