Our home contains the world, these days

A sonnet for the Covid-19 shutdown.

Our home contains the world, these days. Not all
We love, perhaps, but most and dearest-held
Is sheltered safe inside these shabby walls.
We hadn’t noticed how our lives had swelled
Like springtime floods that, everflowing, rise
To overwhelm the riverbanks but won’t
Recede again; our floodplain never dries.
Diversions tugged relentlessly (they don’t
Deserve the time we gave them). Swindled by
False urgency, we’d grasped toward each demand.
Turns out this busied frenzy was a lie;
The only tasks worth doing are at hand. 
This sudden, unexpected ebb has shown
How small, yet rich, our cares should be: our own.

© 2020 Josh Bishop

Comfort & Security in Times of Suffering

“Does disaster come to a city, unless the Lord has done it?”

Amos 3:6

This isn’t a very popular sentiment. I know a lot of you will disagree with it; many of you will find it offensive. But it’s a great comfort to me. Not only is it a great comfort, but I believe it’s the only solid ground to stand on during these anxious times. If you’re looking for those things — comfort and a firm place to plant your feet — then I recommend resting in the providence of God.

When Becca was diagnosed with epilepsy in 2017, our world was rocked. In many, many ways we’re still struggling to get our feet back under us. I’m a reader, so the first thing I did was turn to books about suffering in an attempt to wrap my head around what was happening to us and why; I never expected my bookshelf to have a whole section devoted to suffering. The books that gave me the most comfort were ironically, unexpectedly, the ones that insisted that suffering is part of God’s good purposes, that he wills it for his own glory and for our ultimate good — even though we may not understand it or like it.

I’m not saying it’s easy to believe these things. At first, the idea that God might be responsible for suffering (for Becca’s epilepsy or the coronavirus or anything else) was repulsive to me. But as I kept pressing in, I became convinced that this is the plain testimony of the Bible. (Kevin DeYoung has an excellent post summarizing this.) Once I saw in the Bible that God exercises his sovereignty for the good of his people, even in painful ways, I couldn’t un-see it. But I still didn’t find it comforting.

The comfort comes when I consider the alternatives. I would rather rest in the arms of a God who loves me and who has promised to work all things for my good, even if I can’t understand how this particular thing is truly for my good, than turn myself loose into a world where God is either too impotent or uncaring to do anything about the suffering he didn’t intend. If this is only of the devil, or merely random and meaningless, or simply the way of the world — none of these can give me more comfort than the truth that there’s a Father in heaven who loves me, is watching over for me, intends all things for my good, has promised to be near to me in my suffering, and has reconciled me to himself through Christ so I will one day enjoy him forever.

And the thing is, I can see it. I don’t need to imagine ways that God might eventually use Becca’s epilepsy for her good — I can see many of the ways he’s already using it even now. Her faith and character are stronger. Her testimony is beautiful. Our family is being refined and improved. Our children will be better men and husbands and fathers than they would be without this. And while I may not be able to identify ways, yet, that he’s using coronavirus for good, I absolutely trust that he’s doing something in and through it that couldn’t be done any other way; and if it could be done in a better way, I trust that he’d do it that way instead.

None of this is to say that I can wrap my head around all the ins and outs of the dilemma. How can God be providentially sovereign over suffering without himself being responsible for sin? I don’t know, exactly. How do we balance God’s providence with free will? I’m not sure I can adequately answer that question. I honestly don’t like all the implications of this; if it were up to me, I’d often choose differently — but if it were up to me, I’d’ve made a wreck of the whole thing a long time ago; I can hardly manage a family of four, much less a whole universe; and I certainly wouldn’t have given my wife a disability, which means we would’ve missed out on the blessings and growth that have come from our suffering together.

So, yes, there is comfort and security here. If you do not yet know the love and care of the one true God, consider this your invitation: Repent of your sins and turn to Christ. He died to save sinners like you and like me. And, having done so, he blesses us with the assurance that he is caring for us and that all things work together for the good of those who love him and are called according to his purpose.

On a Disappointing Mid-November Snowfall

The year’s first snow should look more like the flakes
In snowglobes or in Hallmark’s Christmas flicks
Than this, a dingy slop of wet sleet thick
With slush and gross with leaves that lie unraked
Throughout the yard. Their tannins stain the snow
Like yellow piss. We’ll have to wait a few 
More weeks — a month, perhaps — before the truly
Picturesque snow falls. It will, I know,
Because it always has before. And when
It does, the lamppost in our yard will stretch
Its charming beams like fingers out to catch
And hold each gently falling snowflake. Then
The snow (at last, a faultless wintry sight!)
Will blanket all, like Christ our sins, in white.

© 2019 Josh Bishop

An Unexpected Specter

for Becca

There are no graveyards here that want a ghost,
No clapboard churches crowning far-off hills
Whose stones like granite corn rows stretch almost
To where a slate-cold sky meets soil and chills
Our blood with thoughts of Pilgrim bones laid down
Beneath the frost line, safe from fall’s last fell
And skittish breath, which blows before it browning
Autumn leaves to heap in grave-like dells
Where wait old ghosts on crisp New England nights.
No, here belong no poltergeists to spy
And startle from our peace with sudden frights
We weary, footsore souls who wander by.

Here, instead, spring-turned-summer’s splendent rays
(As far removed from cold Atlantic glooms
As south from north) have long lit tranquil days
Where wildflowers — butter-yellow blooms,
Or lupine blue, like bonnets — dot vast plains
Still somehow green despite the noontime heat.
Those wisps might later swell with evening rains
To water prairie grasses, long like wheat,
But now they simply scuff the sky, too thin
To dim this bright and lively plein air scene,
A canvas brushed by youthful nature in
Acrylic hues, each masterstroke pristine.

Yet even here, beneath the shadeless sun’s
Benevolent and gently warming face,
The headless Hessian’s stallion sometimes runs.
Its sudden gallop spooks and puts to chase
Scared choirs of startled songbirds from their trees.
Then, its withered visage grimaced, tight-drawn,
An unexpected specter stoops to seize
With grasping, grapnel hands — and then it’s gone.
The steadfast sun still shines unfazed, still bright,
While we, who half-recall the birdsong, grieve
To hear the fading wingbeats of their flight,
The skittish scratch of browning autumn leaves.

© 2019 Josh Bishop

Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord

And I heard a voice from heaven saying, “Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.” “Blessed indeed,” says the Spirit, “that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them!” (Revelation 14:13)

Bless’d are the dead who die in the Lord,
Theirs is true peace, now, Christ their reward.
Those who are his their inheritance gain:
Rest from all labor, hardship, and pain.

Those left behind bear sorrow and grief,
Theirs is the mournful cry for relief.
Real is the pain, though there’s comfort in this:
God brings his own to heavenly bliss.

Paradise waits for those found in Christ,
Bread and fine wine for feasting unpriced,
Tree bending low with its dozens of fruit,
Waters of life to wet every root.

God for their daylight; Christ for their king.
Saints ’round his throne incessantly sing.
Christ for their ransom; forgiveness for sin.
God for their father; Christ for their kin.

Tears have no place there, sadness no more,
Grace for the weary, balm for the sore.
God will himself kneel to lift every chin,
Peace poured on all, all gladness within.

Ever immortal, ever with breath,
Never again to taste second death,
Sheltered forever from famine and sword,
Bless’d are the dead who die in the Lord.

© 2019 Josh Bishop

What joy will greet us in that place

What joy will greet us in that place
When we with unveiled stare
See in our savior’s ageless face
Our glory mirrored there

What joy! when we, no longer slaves
To flesh and sin and death
Exchange this Egypt’s burning rays
For Canaan’s endless rest

What joy! when sorrows sting no more
What joy! when death has died
What joy! in every loss restored
In tears no longer cried

What joy! when we, the Bride of Christ
Made splendid by his love
Are clothed in festal, spotless white
And seated high above

What joy! to join with saints around
A sea of glass aflame
What joy! when praises loud resound
To glorify his name

What joy! to drink the waters deep
That from God’s temple flow
What joy! to eat from Eden’s tree
What joy! to fully know

We’ve pallid joy while yet we grieve
And toil and long on earth
Impatient waiting to receive
True joy from death — then birth

Lord, bring us safe to Zion’s shore
And grant to us at last
This joy that lives forevermore
What joy! that will not pass

© 2019 Josh Bishop

A revised version of this hymn will be published in a forthcoming hymnal by Cardiphonia Music. © 2019 Cardiphonia Music

Santa Wants Beer and Tobacco

I wrote this poem as a Christmas song to convince my kids that Santa would rather have beer and tobacco than cookies and milk. Just needs some music, is all.

—–

A cold Christmas Eve with a warm moonlit glow
A quiet night soft with the fresh-fallen snow
Inside, out of reach from the cold winter air
Santa’s stuffing the stockings with care

The kids left a glass and a plate piled high
But Santa just pulls on his beard with a sigh
It’s a been a long night, still there’s hours to go
And he’d rather have beer and tobacco

CHORUS
Oh, milk is okay if you don’t drive a sleigh
But a cold ale would warm Santa’s toes
And cookies are fine if you’re staying inside
But a corncob would thaw Santa’s nose

Rudolph got oats from the neighbor next door
And Santa’s already had cookies galore
The last thing he wants is an after-school snack
O, give Santa some beer and tobacco

CHORUS

His pipe can’t be packed full of ready-rubbed holly
And milk won’t make anyone’s cheeks red or jolly
Kids, put down the chocolate chip cookies this year
Please leave Santa tobacco and beer

CHORUS

Santa’s eyes never twinkle so bright as they do
When he’s half a bowl in while he’s sipping a brew
Eat the cookies yourself, kids, I promise I know
Santa really wants beer and tobacco

© 2018 Josh Bishop

Coram Deo (Before the Face of God)

Whatever good I aim to do,
Whatever evil I have done,
My honor small, my virtues few,
My sins and failures — every one —
Are lived before the face of God.
We live before the face of God.

Although it’s calm and comforting
To rest beneath God’s watchful care,
It’s still a rightly fright’ning thing
To bear in sin his wrathful stare.
We can’t escape the gaze of God.
We live before the face of God.

In this they both were glorified,
As there before the Father’s eyes
The righteous Son was crucified.
Look, you, with long-lamenting cries
And see the bloodied face of God.
See there the suff’ring face of God.

I cannot earn what Christ has done,
His sacrifice was gift for me.
Now sighting me God sees his son
And leaves my sins on Calvary.
All this is only grace from God.
We glorify this grace of God.

So when our given time has passed,
When soul and body come apart,
When at the end we breathe our last,
All those who lived in Christ take heart:
You’ll die before the face of God.
We’ll die before the face of God.

But joy will greet us with the dawn,
When, from the tomb as from our beds,
We wake to see that night has gone.
Then lifting from the grave our heads,
We’ll rise before the face of God.
We’ll rise to see the face of God.

There clothed in Christ, our sins washed white,
We’ll sing to him loud songs of praise.
To God all glory, pow’r, and might,
The King of Kings, Ancient of Days.
We’ll finally face the face of God.
All stand to praise this grace of God.

© 2019 Josh Bishop

This hymn will be published in a forthcoming hymnal by Cardiphonia Music.
© 2019 Cardiphonia Music

Lord’s Day, July 5, 1891

Adapted from a sermon by Charles Spurgeon

It is righteous, this pleasure in natural things:
In these star-speckled heavens – sky-scattered delights! –
In these meadows, pale garnished with daisies and kingcups;
In seas, where beasts creep from deeps darker than night’s
Vasty pitch; in these woods, sounding round as with wing
Beats swift minstrels mark time and, mid-carol, take flight.

They are madmen who marvel the mountains and say
Of their chisel-chipped peaks – here brushed light, there daubed dark –
“No, I see here no God,” though the Maker’s mark’s made
In pinched clay. There is something of him in this art.
Only look: Lift your eyes from that beauty-blind way
To rejoice – echo: “Good” – as God praised from the start.

O what gladness – what joy! – in the craft of his hands.
Hear our Christ in the hills – how he thundering raves!
Hear him whisper his hush at the sea’s pebbled strand,
Where his cadence sings soft in the sun-stippled waves.
When admiring these works of our Father we stand
All the nearer, among them, to him. If we say,

Then, that bulbs’ goblets gold, filled with sunlight in spring,
Speak of life newly waking from winter-wrapped rest –
How much more must the sight of a man new-born bring
News of goodness and grace? How much more should a breast
Choked with thorns, once – once withered with sin’s leeching sting –
Give us joy when revived by Christ’s cross-borne caress?

How much more than the buds of the silver-leafed birch
Bursting new should those walking, once-dead, now proclaim:
“Let this slum-become-temple, this whorehouse-turned-church –
This old life dawning new like the darkness turned day –
Spur your praise!” Though there’s joy to be found when we search
Shore and brake, glory’s more in creation remade.

© 2015 Josh Bishop

This poem was published by The Rabbit Room in August 2015.

Abraham, Isaac and Jack

I read novels to my oldest son, Jack, nearly every night. He’s 6. Our favorite stories are tales of imagination and high adventure—Narnia, The Hobbit, The Green Ember, Half Magic—but as good and beneficial as they are, I realized some time ago that the Bible was missing from our reading regimen. Not collections of Bible stories (we’ve been reading those for years), but the actual word of God.

I’m convinced that the Bible offers something that no other book can give: An encounter with the living Christ. So we bought Jack his own Bible in an easy-to-understand translation (NIRV) and started in Genesis 1 with plans to go straight through to the end. Little brother Ollie (age 2) listens in.

It’s been sporadic and slow-going, so far, but I think that’s okay. The point is that Jack will grow up in the habit of making time to read his Bible regularly, and he’ll see the priority Becca and I place on it. I’ve set a long-term goal: By the time Jack is 10, he’ll have read the entire Bible. Sure, there are some parts I’ll leave out this first go-round (Lot and his incestuous daughters, for example), but my philosophy, with very few exceptions, is: If it’s in there, I read it. Then we’ll talk about it.

This “most anything goes” approach has led to a lot of interesting conversations. Some are funny, like when Abraham died: “Abraham dies? He’s the main character!” and “He was 175 years old? If he had that many dollars, he’d have enough to buy the Smaug Lego set.” Some are difficult, like the covenant of circumcision or Sodom and Gomorrah. (You know, those.) Sometimes I don’t know what to say aside from, “Good question. I don’t know. Let’s find out together.”

Then there was the story where God tells Abraham to kill his son, Isaac—that story was trickier than most.

They reached the place God had told Abraham about. There Abraham built an altar. He arranged the wood on it. He tied up his son Isaac. He placed him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then he reached out his hand. He took the knife to kill his son.
(Genesis 22.9–10)

Jack interrupted: “Wait, he’s going to kill him?”

“Well, God told him to offer his son as a sacrifice, but no, wait for the end—he’s not going to kill him.” (Spoiler.)

“What’s a sacrifice?”

“Remember I told you that the Bible says the punishment for sin is death? People used to make sacrifices so the animal’s death would pay the price of their own sin. The animal would die so they wouldn’t have to. But watch what God does here.”

I finished the story.

Abraham looked up. There in a bush he saw a ram. It was caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram. He sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son.
(Genesis 22.13)

I tried to wrap it up: “This is a tough one, Jack. In fact, this is one of your mom’s least favorite stories in the whole Bible. And I almost agree, because without Jesus, this is a really horrible story. But we have Jesus. It’s not horrible, because part of the reason the whole thing happened is so that Israel would know who Jesus was when he came. God gave this story to his people as a gift.”

That confused him.

“Look,” I said. “A dad took his son onto a mountain to offer him as a sacrifice for sin. Can you think of another time a son went on a mountain and died for sins?”

“Jesus?”

“Yes, Jesus. Look at what happens: God gave Abraham the sheep to be used for the sacrifice to save Isaac; and later, God provided another lamb, Jesus, to be the sacrifice to save you and me. Did you know they call Jesus the Lamb of God? This is why: Jesus was the sacrifice for our sin, so we don’t have to kill a sheep like Abraham did. Does that make sense?”

“Sort of.”

(Good enough for me, so I kept going.)

“That’s why this story is actually good news. God saved Abraham’s son, but later on he gave his own son to save us—to save you and me. God never actually wanted Abraham to kill Isaac, he just wanted to show his people about Jesus. They knew this story so they could remember it when they saw what Jesus did.”

Jack was quiet and crawled into my lap and snuggled into me for a hug, not looking at me. He never gets like this.

“Are you okay?”

He nodded.

“Are you bothered?”

Another nod.

“Are you afraid that God will tell daddy to kill you?”

Another nod.

“No, God won’t tell me to kill you. I promise. I promise a thousand times over.”

“How do you know that?”

“Because God already killed Jesus. He took all of our sin and put it on Jesus, so we don’t need to have another sacrifice for any of our sin. Abraham was pointing forward to Jesus, but we get to point backward to Jesus. Jesus died so that you don’t have to. God doesn’t want me to sacrifice you, because God already sacrificed Jesus instead. So he’ll never, ever tell me to kill you.”

Another hug, a better one this time, then we ended with a short prayer:

Thank you, God, for providing the sacrifice for Abraham to save his son. And thank you for providing your own son, Jesus, as a sacrifice to save us—to save me and mom and Jack and Oliver. Thank you that we don’t have to pay for our sin with death because Jesus already did. Amen.

I don’t know that I got the answer right, but I think I did okay. And I hope that, if you have children of your own, this dialogue encourages you to pile on the couch or gather around the dinner table or sprawl on the bed with your kids. Open up God’s word and jump in with them. Tell them the story of God. All of it. It doesn’t matter that you get all the answers right, or that you have answers at all, or that you do a good job pronouncing all those names and places. What matters is that you read it to your children, confident that in those pages they’ll find Christ—and trust that God will do the rest.

—–

NOTE: I’m grateful to The Jesus Storybook Bible and the Gospel Transformation Bible for pointing the way on this one. If I got lost en route, the mistakes are my own; these two guide maps are excellent, and I highly recommend them.