(br)oak(en) for righteousnessk

“To grant to those who mourn in Zion-to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit; that they may be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that He may be glorified.”  Isaiah 61:3 (ESV)

What exactly does an “oak of righteousness” look like?  Do you see it as this great, towering, beautifully shaped tree with a massive trunk and limbs that spread out over an almost inconceivably large area?  This is how I envisioned such an “Isaiah 61:3” tree for the longest time.  And why not, you might very well ask?  It seems to be a quite reasonable vision to adopt in my mind’s eye given its origin and purpose doesn’t it?  After all, we are talking about a tree planted and cared for along the way by the Lord Himself.  It’s quite easy to imagine the form of such a glorious tree as being a Mary Poppins sort of tree, “practically perfect in every way.”  Why, we could call it a “poster tree” or a “model tree” so magnificent in its appearance it must surely be.  This vision of an “Isaiah 61:3” tree, then, became my mental image destination expressed in my prayers and longed for in my heart over the past several years.

How I envision an “oak of righteousness” is no small matter because I’ve learned along the way that how my heart responds to various things going on in my life, specifically the difficult circumstances, is tied strongly to my expectations which in turn are linked to hope.  “See the ball, be the ball” is a favorite expression these days and it applies here as well.  Just substitute “tree” for “ball” and you’re there.  If my sincere prayer is to become an “oak of righteousness” then isn’t it fair to say that it greatly matters what I envision when I imagine such a tree in my heart and mind?  Therefore, as a believer it’s entirely reasonable to ask myself if my “mental paintings” of such a tree are Biblically sound or not.

“Now Joseph had a dream, and he told it to his brothers; and they hated him even more. So he said to them, “Please hear this dream which I have dreamed: There we were, binding sheaves in the field. Then behold, my sheaf arose and also stood upright; and indeed your sheaves stood all around and bowed down to my sheaf.” “Then he dreamed still another dream and told it to his brothers, and said, “Look, I have dreamed another dream. And this time, the sun, the moon, and the eleven stars bowed down to me.” Genesis 37:5-7, 9 (NKJV)

What do you suppose Joseph’s expectations were following these two God-breathed dreams?  I can’t say for sure about Joseph, but if I had been visited by such dreams I’m confident in saying that my daydreams…my expectations…my hopes… afterwards would’ve soared high above the clouds and far beyond even to the moon and the stars.  I would’ve been like a hot air balloon soaring upwards without even the tiniest hint of a sand bag being present to even dare slow my imagined rapid ascent.

To borrow a familiar phrase, however:  what goes up must come down, and this is especially true when pride itself has been shown to be present.

“Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.”  Proverbs 16:18 (NKJV)

“So it came to pass, when Joseph had come to his brothers, that they stripped Joseph of his tunic, the tunic of many colors that was on him. 24 Then they took him and cast him into a pit. And the pit was empty; there was no water in it.”  Genesis 37: 23-24 (NKJV)

“Sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground.”  What’s your reaction to these lyrics by James Taylor from his song, “Fire and Rain?”  From day one years ago when I first heard this phrase these words have captivated me.  The visual imagery of crushed expectations and lost hope conveyed by these few words upon my heart is stunningly precise in its poignant message.  Certainly Joseph could’ve related all too painfully well to these lyrics from the bottom of the pit now having found himself so very far away from the dreamy scenario of the bowing wheat sheaves, moon, and stars that had once delighted him and filled him with so much hope.  I’m guessing Joseph couldn’t wait for such an incredibly bright future to come.

So, how do you safely navigate what appears to be an abruptly cruel and unexpected end to your glorious parade of expectations?  What do you do when you find yourself slogging through a terrifying detour, knee deep in an unmapped, dark and foreboding swamp with no exit sign over a single hollowed out half-dead tree to be found in any direction?  How do you not panic and keep your spiritual  nose above the water?  I can only imagine what thoughts and questions must’ve been racing through Joseph’s mind at the bottom of this dark hole.  “But… but…but…God…what about those dreams you gave me?  Were those dreams real or just something created by my own imagination?  This is NOT at all how I thought things were going to unfold.  Why has this happened to me?  Something is off here! HELP!”

And indeed, something is “off.”  When our expectations do not match up exactly with the Lord’s ways we find our once bright hope growing uncomfortably dim and vulnerable to attack.   It’s our very nature to think we’ve got God figured out, especially so when we see Him on the move in our lives.  We then impetuously leap ahead fully confident we’ve got Him and the whole situation already mapped out.  In doing so we erect an unrealistic outwardly beautiful oak of righteousness in our minds according to a design of our own making that is not fully engaged with His truth, purposes, and plans.  And therein great danger crouches in wait for us. This zone of friction between our truth and God’s truth is nothing new:

“But the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Do not consider his appearance or at his physical stature, because I have refused him.  For the Lord does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.’” 1 Samuel 16:7 (NKJV)

Years later in the story we find Joseph, a rightly pruned and inwardly beautiful oak of righteousness, standing before his kneeling, formerly unmerciful and conniving brothers sincerely uttering one of the most heart-touching proclamations in all of the Bible, “But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive.”  Genesis 50:20 (NKJV)

Talk about a 180 over the course of Joseph’s life.  How did such a remarkable change take place in this man of God’s heart?

 “For whom the Lord loves He chastens, and scourges every son whom He receives.”  Hebrews 12:6 (NKJV)

“Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit.  I am the vine, you are the branches.  He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing.” John 15:2, 5 (NKJV)

We must therefore be vigilant and mindful that there is a personal cost to be found in the pruning as the Lord transforms us to become an oak of righteousness bearing fruit for His good purposes and glory.  To think otherwise is to tempt the crouching lion patiently awaiting you up around the next dimly lit intersection of your journey.   Unless we actively engage and daily employ the wisdom found in Psalm 119:105 (NKJV), “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” we risk becoming dinner for the lion.  Or did you think his roar was for another?

I love this quote by Charles Spurgeon: “God does not need your strength; He has more than enough on His own.  He asks for your weakness; He has none of that.”  Let us be careful thinking we know what a beautiful oak of righteousness should look like.  My thinking has been turned inside out and upside down about this.  I now realize such a tree is indeed exceedingly beautiful and immensely strong, but not outwardly as I once considered, but rather in its inner most parts.  Outwardly it bears the glorious marks and scars of a life beautifully transformed for Christ’s sake resulting in a less than ideal appearance according to the world.  Yes, my early visions of such a tree were shallowly rooted lacking understanding.   A true Isaiah 61:3 tree’s outward appearance can’t help but reflect the Lord’s careful and purposeful pruning made beautiful in its scars through the inward strength and intimacy created when someone has been around the block of life a time or two with the Lord.   As the saying goes, “That’s gonna leave a mark.”  And indeed what beautiful marks they are in the Lord’s hands are they not?

Lord, bend and prune me as You see fit like You did so long ago with Your servant Joseph, so that I too will one day be an oak of righteousness, a planting of Yours, that You may be glorified according to Your purposes and plans for my life.  When I am tempted to doubt and lose hope when my preconceived vision of how things are supposed to look don’t line up with Your truth and purposes, bring to my mind and heart these verses: “And we know that all things work together for good for those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.  For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren.”  Romans 8:28-29 (NKJV).  “Let me seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly in Your sight.Micah 6:8 In Your Son, our Savior’s name, amen!

Lauren Daigle, “Trust in You” from the album “How Can It Be”

 

Three as One

“One thing I have asked of Yahweh, that I will seek after, that I may dwell in Yahweh’s house all the days of my life, to see Yahweh’s beauty, and to inquire in his temple.”  Psalm 27:4 (WEB)

True Beauty, can you be in its presence and ever be the same again?  Noble Beauty grabs you and won’t let go, nor do you want it to let go of you.  And rightly so.  Pure Beauty is transformative as it holds your fluttering, breathless heart completely captive with a fiercely compelling tenderness that cannot, that will not, be denied.  It is an admirable and excellent loveliness that possesses depth without limits.  Why else do we return again and again to drink from True Beauty’s praiseworthy cup of purple mountains’ majesty?  So deep is it that one time is immensely satisfying, but never enough, nor is a thousand times.  Is one sunrise enough?  One sunset?  As more is revealed the more of Authentic Beauty we desire with great longing…and the more it graciously gives of itself such that we are willingly swept along True Beauty’s redemptive path.

As I walked down the road contemplating His beauty as the unfading Rose a prayer tugged at my heart.  “Lord, would you reveal even more of Your beauty to me?  Would You grant me a greater understanding of You?”  Arriving at the cul-de-sac a few minutes later I stood there and surveyed my surroundings.  There really wasn’t that much to see that I hadn’t already seen before on previous walks to the same spot.  Yes, the light breeze was nice, as was the sun shining through the trees, and all the birds were singing like usual, too.  By all accounts this was a lovely, but ordinary day.  But, then, suddenly three birds burst out of nowhere flying in what appeared to be impossibly close quarters to one another.  They flew spontaneously yet did so with the precision of a well-rehearsed marching band as they bobbed and weaved through the air in remarkable harmony and rhythm with one another.  It was as if they knew beforehand what the other would do.  Their dance in mid-air was joyfully synchronized such that it had the appearance of the breath of life itself.  Captivated, I could not take my eyes away from the beauty circling round about me.

“But ask the animals, now, and they shall teach you; the birds of the sky, and they shall tell you. Or speak to the earth, and it shall teach you. The fish of the sea shall declare to you. Who doesn’t know that in all these, Yahweh’s hand has done this, in whose hand is the life of every living thing, and the breath of all mankind?” Job 12:7-10 (WEB)

As I watched these birds it occurred to me that these three absolutely delighted in each other’s company.  They were completely and utterly enthralled with one another.  At that moment another thought crossed my mind: the remarkable dance of these birds across the sky is but a tiny glimpse into the beauty, mystery, and the pure joy of harmony and purpose shared by the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  The unity of the Trinity relationship is of such transcendent beauty and bliss that there can be no doubt that Our. Heavenly. Father. Is. Relational. At. His. Very. Core.

The splendor of the Trinity is multi-faceted.  There is beauty upon beauty. There is even more here still yet to be revealed. What is this forthcoming beauty? Incredibly, it’s that we, His created, are invited to take our place in Their extraordinary harmony and magnificent dance by embracing a vibrant, intimate relationship with Him.  We, His sons and daughters, have been offered the astonishing opportunity to take the outstretched, nail-scarred hand of the King of Kings, and Lord of Lords and soar across His creation in His arms.

“God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.”  Genesis 1:26a (WEB)

Surely, then, this is a Beauty like none other beckoning us to experience all it has to offer.  Indeed, there is no other invitation as exceedingly beautiful and gracious as this.  Let us rejoice and praise Him for it’s an incomparable Beauty of unity, fellowship, and love that our Savior has already fervently prayed over us.

“Not only for these do I pray, but for those also who believe in me through their word, that they may also be one in us; that the world may believe that you sent me.  The glory which you have given me, I have given to them; that they may be one, even as we are one;   I in them, and you in me, that they may be perfected into one; that the world may know that you sent me, and loved them, even as you loved me.  Father, I desire that they also whom you have given me be with me where I am, that they may see my glory, which you have given me, for you loved me before the foundation of the world.  Righteous Father, the world hasn’t known you, but I knew you; and these knew that you sent me.  I made known to them your name, and will make it known; that the love with which you loved me may be in them, and I in them.”  John 17:20-26 (WEB)

Lord, sweep me away along True Beauty’s path of life with You!

 

Doxology by Stars Go Dim

beauty at the point of suffering

“Yahweh is my shepherd: I shall lack nothing.  He makes me lie down in green pastures.  He leads me beside still waters.  He restores my soul.  He guides me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.  Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.  Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.  You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.  You anoint my head with oil.  My cup runs over.  Surely goodness and loving kindness shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in Yahweh’s house forever.”  Psalm 23 (WEB)

 

Suffering.                                                                                                          Beauty.

 

Worlds apart in our minds…and in our hearts…are suffering and beauty.  So opposite are these two conditions that to intimately juxtapose them so that they are face to face with one another seems all-together not just unlikely but wrong.  Just as oil and water don’t mix likewise are suffering and beauty we say to ourselves.   Surely they are so vastly different from one another that they are better and more comfortably comprehended as if they exist on opposite sides of the ocean from one another.  Where there is pain, where there is suffering, there can be no beauty.  We are so convinced this is truth such that there can be no other understanding to our way of thinking.  After all have we not seen with our very own eyes and felt with our very own hearts from our personal vantage point in the watch tower known as experience that overlooks the paths we and so many others have trod that this is so?

Try as we might to avoid all the thorns sooner or later we are pierced.  No matter how hard we try there are some thorns in this life which simply cannot be avoided.  One day this dark, heartless rider takes us by force, carries us away, and unmercifully thrusts us directly onto the razor sharp point of a thorn.  It doesn’t matter why the rider came, it only matters that he did.  Cut, bleeding, and deeply wounded by the thorn’s presence the pain runs rampant throughout our entire being.  Pressed up against the crumbling, thorn-covered cliff’s edge precariously perched high above the unyielding rocks covering the valley floor far below our hearts long for mercy and deliverance.  Engulfed by our pain night and day we desperately search the all-too-blurry horizon through tear-filled eyes for signs of sweet, life-sustaining, live-giving hope galloping heroically towards us and again our past experiences remind us, as if on cue, of the great chasm that exists between

suffering                                                   and

beauty.

If only such a suffocating expanse of hopelessness could be bridged.   It’s not like we haven’t tried to make that journey, of course.  After all, pain and suffering seek relief, no, it is far more than that…they demand relief, and so countless times and in countless ways we have tried to cross this abyss,  all to no avail, all to our detriment.   Sadly, in our own attempts to obtain relief we eventually find that all too often what we once held the reins to now cruelly reigns over us:

(Johnny Cash, Hurt)

But, then God.

What humanity is unable to do the Lord accomplishes.   Only He is able to bring these two polar opposites together in such an extraorodinary way so as to create the spirit-lifting rhythm, melody, and soothing notes of harmony that we so desperately seek in the midst of our sufferings.  Only He can unite suffering and beauty in such a miraculous way that an even greater beauty of breathtaking signficance and transcendence is revealed.  It is a beauty like no other that lavishes our hearts and souls with the deliciously  honeysuckle sweet scent of hope which we so desperately seek in the depths of our sufferings.  As surely as the air we deeply inhale after a cleansing summer shower is wonderfully new, fresh, and utterly pleasant so is the message of hope delivered by His grace and mercy that is found in our Savior’s love for us.   Take heart, sister, take heart, brother, Jesus, our infinite Drop of living water overflowing with hope, comes to those who cry out to Him in their lowest and darkest times of need.

“Yahweh is near to those who have a broken heart, and saves those who have a crushed spirit.”  Psalm 34:18 (WEB)

“Jesus answered her, ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never thirst again; but the water that I will give him will become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life.”  John 4:13-14 (WEB)

Poised and perfectly balanced on the sharp point of our suffering like the delicate drop of water at the end of the thorn Jesus compassionately offers His own beauty, joy, and hope to us in our time of heartache for He, too, has personally experienced the anguish and misery from life’s thorns, thorns that were ours and not His to bear.

“So Pilate then took Jesus, and flogged him.  The soldiers twisted thorns into a crown, and put it on his head, and dressed him in a purple garment.  They kept saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!”  and they kept slapping him.”  John 19:1-3 (WEB)

Laid low in the darkness will we embrace the hope and beauty offered to us by the One, our precious Drop of Living Water, who willingly places Himself right on the very tip end of the thorn that is the source of our anguish?  Will we embrace His presence and know that we are not alone no matter how dark the dark, how excruciating the pain?   He has come to breathe life into our breaking hearts for His desire is to set us free, but we must begin to understand that there is a bigger story at work here beyond ourselves.  Certainly He understood this in His own life as He stumbled through angry crowds broken and beaten carrying a cross on His way to Calvary, didn’t He?  He trusted His Father to speak life into what appeared to thousands of eyes surrounding Him that day to be a one-way, dead-end street with absolutely no hope.  And so must we in the presence of thorns.   Only then can we find ourselves in His arms swaying to a melody of joy and undeniable hope that is unknown and foreign to the world.   Only then can we find the Beauty of Beauties waiting to be revealed within our suffering.  Only then can we experience transformative intimacy with Him.

“But may the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after you have suffered for a little while, perfect, establish, strengthen, and settle you.”  1 Peter 5:10 (WEB)

The beauty of His precious hope is ever before us.  It surrounds us.  Even in the midst of our being crushed it is present.  Surely, then, the words from that old familiar hymn ring even more sweetly in the warm and radiant sunrise of the wonderful promise of His healing presence in our lives as His precious children:

“This is my story, this is my song, praising my Savior all the day long,

this is my story, this is my song, praising my Savior all the day long.”

Why?  Because,  “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness” for then, and only then, is it truly “well with my soul.”

(Francis Blight, My Hope is Built on Nothing Less)

the unfading Rose

 “The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God stands forever.”  Isaiah 40:8 (WEB)

A rose in its prime is treasured the world over for its remarkable beauty.  For a few moments our lives are graced and inspired by its presence.  But, it’s a beauty not meant to last for very long.  As it fades away before our very eyes we are reminded that there is but one beauty that transcends time, a beauty that never fades away, a beauty that when intimately embraced in our lives grows ever more beautiful over time.  How can it not? He alone is the one true Rose of Sharon that loves you without ceasing and has promised to never leave your side.

I ask you, “Is there another Rose that is as true, as noble, as pure, as lovely, as of such good report, as virtuous, and as praiseworthy” (Philippians 4:8) other than Jesus?  After all, there is no other Rose who died, was buried, and then rose three days later to set you, His dearly beloved, free.  Can there be anything more breathtakingly beautiful than the unfading Rose of our salvation?

“Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.”  Hebrews 13:8 (WEB)

“Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God shines out.”  Psalm 50:2 (WEB)

 

Jason Upton, “Jesus, You’re Beautiful” (from the album “A Table Full of Strangers, vol 2”)