Thursday, December 18, 2008


Speechless. Without audible uttering. Unable to form communicable words with one's tongue. Though for some it may be difficult to believe, I have found myself in this predicament a time or two. The birth of my sons--their slow motion arms and legs stretching skyward and their lifesaver red lips forming tiny ohs as they made their entrance into the world--left me utterly overwhelmed and without words. A yellow topaz ring I had admired for over a year presented in the hands of my husband to me when I thought he hadn't realized how much I loved it also found me unable to form verbal expression. A friend just yesterday told me how her husband had left her sleeping while he crawled from bed blurry eyed and dazed and headed to Wal-Mart for their 5 AM Black Friday sale to pick up their children's Christmas gift. When she realized she had overslept she dashed from bed clamoring to get dressed in hopes there might be a few of the prized items left when her husband casually said, "It's okay. I already got it." Speechless! A husband who braved the insanity of Wal-Mart on black Friday...alone! Wow. My question today is have you ever been left speechless by God? Poor Zechariah and Elizabeth don't get a lot of air time what with Mary and the baby Jesus' story only verses after their own tale of miraculous pregnancy and birth. Here were two righteous and obedient children of God who found themselves unable to bare a child. Scripture doesn't tell us of their emotions about the lack of children, but as a mom, I know that at some point in her life Elizabeth must have groaned and wept into her pillow with the longing for a child. And I wonder if anyone shared with her in her pain. I wonder if at some point she and Zechariah came to the understanding that God was sovereign and remained good despite the reality that He had not blessed them with a child of their own. So often the things withheld from us are not for our pain but for God's later glory and if we can hold onto that truth during the barren season we somehow position ourselves to fully grasp and enjoy the blessings of God when they are poured into our lives. I wonder if Zechariah and Elizabeth understood that. Now Gabriel appeared to Zechariah while he was in the holy place and tells him he is going to have a son. Naturally Zechariah is not a little surprised and certainly has some questions. My pastor pointed out that unlike Mary who when told she will give birth to the prophesied Messiah of her nation simply asked, "How can this be since I've not been with a man," Zechariah asks for some sort of a sign to prove its truth. Interesting comparison. Mary accepted what the angel said as true and simply wondered about the practical "how" God would accomplish this. Zechariah on the other hand wanted proof that what the angel said was in fact true--a sign. So often I still want to ask God for confirmation signs. I won't go there today theologically, but I do want to say that sometimes when I notice a pattern of asking God for confirmation signs it's an indicator that I'm struggling with weak faith. God's Word is clear that living out belief in what we do not tangibly see is a part of the follower of Christ's daily life. "Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence not seen." (Hebrews11:1) "The righteous shall walk by faith." (Habakkuk 2:4) Jumping ahead a moment, while Zechariah is chatting with Gabriel Luke 2 says "Now the people were waiting for Zechariah, and they began to wonder why he was delayed in the holy place." I love that little sentence. So often when we are meeting our destiny, when we are discovering the greatness of God's plan for our life--people on the outside looking in have no idea what is going on. It's never convenient when God drops in and changes everything, but it's always right. Zechariah was busy doing what he was supposed to do. So often I get caught up in thinking perhaps I need to do something different for God to speak to me. Listen, when God wants to interrupt our daily routine to have a little chat, I can without hesitation promise you He'll have no problem getting our attention. Remember the writing on the wall? The burning bush? The baby floating in a basket down a river? The talking donkey? For busy moms and dads who are just thankful to get ten minutes of quiet time before the Lord a day, the idea of spending a sacred hour or two before the Lord each morning prostrate before Him is almost laughable at times. If you are able to do that regularly, then I commend you. But if you aren't I pray that you know that your God loves you so intensely, so radically, so emphatically that when He's ready to do something major in your life, you'll know it. Our job is to remain faithful with the stewardships God has given us--to obey. And when we do feed our spirits, then we need to make sure that we feed them with the milk and honey of God's Word and not other things. Now backing up again to verses 19 and 20, Gabriel answers Zechariah's request for a sign like this, "I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God..." It's as though he's saying, "Hello! You may not have noticed I'm an angel! You know that God you are making offerings to right here in the Holy Place? Well, I stand in his presence everyday! Trust me, when I tell you you are going to have a baby. You're gonna have a baby!" Here's the thing--when we do get the burning bush experience we need to respond in faith. Everything that angel told Zechariah lined up with the prophecy of God's Word and Zechariah being of priestly lineage definitely would have known God's Word. We should always test things against the truth of God's Word and when it lines up, we need to line up too and obey in faith. Then Gabriel says to Zechariah, "because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will be silent, unable to speak, until the day these things take place." And there you have it. God sends an angel to tell Zechariah his life is fixing to be changed forever and Zechariah is so shocked he wants proof that God's really going to do this great thing. I can almost hear God saying, "Zechariah, buddy, I'm God. I can do ALL THINGS. When I move in your life, when I act, it'll leave you speechless." Most theologians agree that he was probably also left deaf because of the fact that later on when asking for the name of the baby, the people made signs to Jon to ask the question. I can't help but wonder if God's whole point in leaving Zechariah deaf and mute was simply this: if we don't listen to the message of God delivered by his servants our hearing is of no use to us. And when our lips utter words of unbelief, they too are of no value. But more than anything, I think Zechariah was left speechless by the power of God at work in his life. Zechariah was a good man. He obeyed God. He served God. And he struggled with believing the unbelievable. I can relate to that. What prayer or petition of your heart is something so impossible that it is difficult to believe God will work in that situation? The answer to that question my friend is likely the very situation where God desires greatly to leave you speechless. Speechless not because you couldn't believe He'd work, but speechless at His power and His might and His faithfulness when He does move. I have a list of barrens--the situations and circumstances in the lives of my friends and family that seem impossible. Trust me, I've got some doosies on that list. I bet you do too. And I am specifically taking those before God and saying, "Lord, leave me speechless. Show your power. Show your might. I don't see how, but I believe, Lord. I believe." Will you pray that with me? "God of wonder, Lord of the barren wastelands in our lives, you see all of these situations. You already know they exist and have a plan that incorporates them in our lives for your glory. God we believe you can work. We believe you are able. Lord, we're not kidding when we say that we believe some of these circumstances are literally impossible, but God with you all things are possible. We stand on that truth today. We line up behind it and we beg of you, leave us speechless. In Jesus' name we ask. Amen."

Saturday, December 13, 2008

In The Hill Country

"Are you overwhelmed, Sarah?" It was my sister's question and I answered like any self-respecting prideful human being would answer. "No." Liar. Of course I'm overwhelmed, but who ever wants to admit that? Thankfully, my sister is in tune enough to know the truth and kind enough to let me phrase it anyway I want. "It's not that I'm overwhelmed, I just know I have a lot to do." Translation--I'm overwhelmed. All of us have seasons when there are significant time consuming things that we must accomplish. There aren't any real choices--they are largely non-negotiable items. I'm not talking about little things like whether or not we should attend the staff Christmas party or whether or not we should go to the tree lighting ceremony--we have them too. But throughout life there are seasons when our day is literally filled from the moment we pull the duvet out from under our chins to the moment we place it, wearily, back again an the pillow cradles our heads. Generally, though, my seasons like this do not come at Christmas. I've always tried very hard to guard against that. This year however, I have four major things happening simultaneously, none of which have anything to do with Christmas and all of which are life impacting situations. And there's probably no magazine article on how to have a stress free Christmas that will help at this point--I've cut out, reduced and minimized where I can. Painful reductions too, I might add. There are friends and even family I haven't had time to call and a co-op we had to pull the kids from for the next semester and ministries we've said, not now to. It's a delicate balance between admitting, yes, I'm overwhelmed, and asking someone to play the violin while I sing my carol of Christmas woe for any who will lend their ears. The latter is not my intention. Trust me! But the line between being honest, transparent even and pulling up my boots, pointing my nose into the air and denying any need at all seems blurry at times. After all, aren't the good Christians never overwhelmed or dare I say stressed out? I hesitate even to use that word because we are told to be "anxious for nothing." Then too there is the line of thinking that travels along the vein of looking around at the others in my life. They have so many more things with which to deal. And they do. I look around at my family and friends, my church and our community and then beyond to places like Africa where a child is orphaned every fourteen seconds and I ask myself how I could dare use the word overwhelmed in relation to my own life. But then I read the words of Psalm 121, "I lift my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come," and the heat of wet tears insist on filling my eyes. Admittedly there are hills in other people's lives that are greater, higher than those in my own. But to deny there are any hills?Well, my tears seem to say what my mouth is too proud to utter. I have some hills and I'm a little afraid they're bigger than I can handle. I don't know if i should dig deeper and keep going or if perhaps I've somehow taken a wrong turn. Are these hills present because of a poor decision or are they softly lain in my path to strengthen my legs for the next mountain in the distance? Someone asked me, "How are you doing everything?" I responded, "I'm just putting one foot in front of the other." I wanted to say something marvelously spiritual like, "Well, God has just infused me with this abundance of energy and everyday I wake up in fast forward and just go go go! Praise the Lord!" But I'm just not that good of a story spinner. I already tried to tell my own sister I wasn't overwhelmed. Let's just be honest--there's no abundance of energy at my house this season. I do however, have enough. Enough for each day. Enough for each new task--each new requirement. And I'm reminded of the Israelites and their manna; always enough for that day. Never anymore. And I'm thankful for that because somehow there is security and beauty in knowing that God is so in love with me that He is determined to affix and fuse my heart to His in a trusting relationship. As though He has been whispering to my spirit, "I am enough, Sarah. El Shaddai. Trust me. I will be enough tomorrow too. I will because I AM." The second verse of Psalm 121 says, "My help comes from the Lord, the Creator of heaven and earth!" It goes on to say, "The Lord is your protector; the Lord is the shade at your right hand. The Lord will protect you from all harm; he will protect your life. The lord will protect you in all you do, now and forevermore." When I look around I'm tempted to compare my situation to the circumstances of many around me--measure my hills and their hills. I always come up short. That's a slippery slope I can assure you. I always walk away from a comparison session feeling as though all the other Christians are more worthy. Somehow they manage to handle everything and I get a little speed bump in the pathway and want to throw a hissy fit. That's why the author of Hebrews says, "Therefore since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, we must get rid of every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and run with endurance the race set out for US, keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith." (Hebrews 12:1) We all have our hills at some point and God's direction is that we keep our eyes on the face of the man who climbed Golgotha's hill. We hold our hands to the sides of our face and force tunnel vision upon ourselves. We insist that the face of Jesus is all we need to see because He already endured and conquered and everyone's hills pale in comparison to His. We look into His eyes and we do exactly what I said to my friend--put one foot in front of the other. Again and again. I'm like Paul when he said, "I'm not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned (in my case, am learning) to be content in any circumstance." (Phil. 4:10) I'm content in this hill country--not because I'm into mountain climbing per se but because I know that the presence of El Shaddai is in these hills and where He is, there I want to be also. I say these things because I know there have to be a few of you who can relate. Most of you I know are probably far more together than I. And that's okay. But for those who find themselves in the hill country for a season or perhaps have a loved one making a solo trek through an Everest in their life, may you know that for a believer we have an "ever present help in times of trouble." We have a God who will "supply all our needs" and we "shall not want." Those are the truths on which we must walk. Just after Paul instructed the believers of Philippi not to be anxious about anything he says, "And the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus." That's the very peace Jesus said He came to give, "Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you; I do not give it to you as the world does. Do not let your hearts be distressed or lacking in courage." (John 14:27) I'm determining in my spirit that I'll not deny Jesus His purpose in coming--especially at this Christmas season. Paul must have known that there were a few like myself back then that needed a little practical help in this area because he goes on to explain just exactly what they should do. First of all in every situation we find the time--scratch that--make the time to pray and petition God. Then we thank Him ahead of time for what we know based on His word He is able to do and make all of our requests to Him. I'm okay with that part. I'm pretty good about starting my day off with prayer--some face to face time with my Father. But then Paul continues, and this, I believe is the kicker for some of us ornery followers. "Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is worthy of respect, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if something is excellent or praiseworthy, think about these things...And the God of peace will be with you." (Phil. 4:8) That passage brings us full circle. The only person worthy, true, pure, lovely, excellent and praiseworthy is Jesus. Fix our eyes on Jesus. A WAY in a manger. Jesus. The WAY in a manger. THE WAY through the hills of our lives. If you are climbing this season when you'd rather be sitting by the fire sipping cider and nibbling gingersnaps may you know that there is a way through and you are not alone. Pray with me: Jesus, You are the way. I acknowledge that in you there is a path for my life, in you there is hope, in you there is peace. Jesus I honor you this season not because you took trouble from my life but because you understand it and walk with me through it. Jesus I honor you because You are worth trusting. If like the wisemen, I could lay a gift at your feet, it would be my trust. Help me to fix my gaze on who You are and not where I am. Amen.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Thankful for the Meat of Things: The I AM

If Thanksgiving had fallen on the day Christ hung lifeless from the trunk of a tree driven into the hill of Golgotha I wonder for what Mary would have given thanks. If 9--11 had delivered it's death jets on Thanksgiving Day I can't help but ask what we would have thanked God for. But upon Thanksgiving's arrival today there are fresh winds and blueberry frosh skies. The sausage rice stuffing is prepared and the sweet potato souffle is waiting for it's turn in the oven. Coffee is brewed and the news seems somehow void of any major events--for this one day. Thanksgiving. For centuries we've honored this day as a day to stop, just stop, and be thankful. I've always been one that likes to look beneath all the fixings, the trimmings, the fluff if you will. Show me the roots, the meat, the core, the crux. Get to the bottom line. Often when my husband has something to share with me I'll stop him and request that he tell me the end of his story first so I know exactly where we're going--then he can fill it in with all the details and dare I say bunny trails that make his stories so unique. And I find myself this morning in the same place--just saying, Lord, if everything and everyone I know and love were gone, what then would I be thankful for? What Lord, are those who awake today in barren lands or with barren hearts to give thanks for? This morning in my quiet time I was reading Isaiah 40 and like an anthem God's Word heralded the core of my Thanksgiving Offering. (Follow along in Isaiah 40) For what, Sarah can you always be grateful though flowers wither and grass turns brown with autumns parching wind? For what, Sarah can you say thank you when people die and holidays are spent alone, when stomachs are empty and dreams are unthinkable? This, Sarah, be thankful for this. I AM Comfort. I AM the God who comforts my people. I speak kindly to my people. There will come a day when I will end their time of warfare, when punishment will cease. Clear a way for me, for my comfort. Out of the desert regions within your souls will you open a road for me? I AM Adonai. I will elevate the valleys and I will level the mountains and hills. I will take the rugged, ravaged places and make them a smooth plain on which you will stand. I will reveal my splendor and everyone will see it. Don't doubt this because of what you see. Believe it because I have decreed it. Don't you realize that people are no different than grass yet you cling to them? Imagine clinging to a blade of grass when the winds rise and the rains rail against the shell of your souls? You are clinging to nothing if you cling to people. And dare you cling to their promises? You might as well cling to the fragrant petals of a wild Cherokee Rose. Hold on tight, now. Your grass will become brittle and flake within your grasp, and your flower will wilt and melt into nothing more than its perfume. What then will you cling to? When you cling to my decrees, then you are clinging to hope. When I, the Lord decree something it is forever. Go now to the nearest mountain and cry out. Don't be afraid or embarrassed or ashamed to shout out my introduction. "Here is your God." Here is your God! I will tell you who I AM. I AM a victorious warrior. I AM sovereign--don't miss this. I AM sovereign--there is not a thing, NOT ONE SINGLE thing in your life that somehow slipped beyond my grasp. And I am a warrior whose military power is greater than every nuclear bomb and hidden stronghold in the world. Greater. And I AM a shepherd who does not neglect his flock. Do you understand me? I'll never neglect you. I will tend, I will gather, I will carry and I will lead, but I will never ever neglect my flock. I AM your Shepherd when you need me and when you don't. I'm still there. It is I who measured out the waters of earth in the very hollow of my hand and it was I who measured the sky with precision. I weighed the soil of the earth on which you toil and I hold the mountains and the hills in balance. Do you think gravity is merely a scientific term? You need to know that I invented, formed, created gravity--it is nothing more than the inhaling and exhaling of my power. Can you internalize what I am telling you? These are the decrees, the truths you hold to when skies are clear and when they are grey, and these truths will not change. No one teaches me. No one instructs me. I am never in need of assistance or directions. You will never find an accurate earthly comparison to me because there is NONE like me. No. Not even one! There will be those who seek the golden faces of some idol but in time they will discover it is silent when they cry out. In time they will discover it is still when they plead for help. In time they will discover it's heart is stone when their grief overwhelms them. But, I am the one who stretched out the sky like a curtain and it is I who pitched it like a tent above you. Can you see that I gave it to you like a picture of how my sovereignty covers your very life? I reduce rulers to nothing. There is no country or ruler that bares any significance apart from me. Don't you see that when you fear who will rule your nation I am calmly orchestrating the events on earth as they play out in the timeline of eternity? And if you thought for a brief moment that you could compare me to someone--maybe just some small resemblance I would call out to you, "Not even close. I am HOLY. I am set apart, different and unlike any other." It was I who created and named every heavenly light and there is not one that is missing though you may not see them. Now, tell me, created one, why is it that you say, "The Lord is not concerned with me?" Allow me now to tell you with emphatic intensity, "I AM concerned. I AM the eternal God, the Creator of the entire earth and I AM not tired. I AM not weary. There is no limit to my wisdom. And I AM concerned with you. I will give strength to those who are tired and I will renew the energy of the man who has become weak. There is no man or woman who will not one day find themselves weary or stumbling and I AM there. I AM present. I AM ready to give strength to those who wait for me. When you wait for my intervention it will be as if you were swept up into the heavens on the wingspan of the mighty eagle. Those who wait on the Holy God of Israel will run through the mountains and the hills and the valleys. They will walk without falling. This, child, this, is who I AM. And this, child, will not change. For this you can be grateful both today and tomorrow no matter what that day brings. And so when scripture exclaims, "This is your God" I respond with "Yes, this is my God. The I AM. And it is for Him that I offer thanks today." Amen. (And Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours--may you offer thanks today for the meat of things.)

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Sometimes we just can't help but wonder...Who IS in charge?

Many years ago during a summer when my sister and I swapped the babysitting responsibilities of our younger siblings each day, my two year old sister was found on the opposite side of our subdivision. Not only was she completely alone, she was also completely naked. She had wandered from the house and begun her toddler-streaking stroll about the neighborhood unnoticed. Our house though lacking any adult supervision was always brimming with neighborhood kids and our other siblings. We were probably too young for the responsibility—okay, obviously too young. Nonetheless it was one given us because of extreme circumstances and we did our best. But on this day we did not know until we looked up from our playing in the back bedroom to see the crooked frame of Mrs. Sylvester and her white plume of hair. Like a dandelion gone to seed she stood gripping my baby sister’s sticky fingers with a grasp surprisingly strong for someone so overtaken by arthritis. “Who is in charge here?” She demanded. Who is in charge here? A fair question considering she did find a two year old very unattended and very naked wandering the rural streets of northern Georgia. There’s no telling what moonshine drinking, overall wearing, toothless old man might have come along and snagged her for permanent servitude in the corn distilling industry of the hills. But really, who was in charge? Where were our momma and daddy on that day? Where was a responsible babysitter on that day? Those are questions that merit their asking. And I can answer. My mother was working. Hard. And I’ll not criticize the decisions she made for had I been in her shoes I don’t know how I ever would have survived. Life is not always full of white picket fences and fairy tale endings and my mother’s story at that time was not any of those things. She was up long before us and to bed long after us. She worked. She went to school. She cooked. She cleaned. She chauffeured. She washed laundry. She cared for five girls. Like I said, my mom was working. Of course to say my poor sister and I had a wake up call that day would be an obvious understatement. From then on we knew we needed to be more vigilant—especially with our youngest siblings who were still such babies. When I remember that day though, what still strikes me is that very first question—Who’s in charge here? Sometimes when we look at our lives they are disturbingly, shockingly not the way they should be. No little girl should be found roaming the streets because nobody noticed her tiny naked bottom as it shuffled out the door and down the driveway. Should marriages break up because nobody noticed a naked heart roaming out the door from years of neglect? Should bodies bulge because nobody noticed the ridiculous amount of unhealthy food being consumed to comfort emotional distress? Should relationships become strained like tires whose tread has worn to the metal because nobody noticed the feelings that were trampled on carelessly and then left to rot like wet autumn leaves on a mountain trail? When I look across the faces of the people in my world and see hunger, disease, bankruptcy, foreclosure, divorce, bitterness, fear, pain, disappointment, loss, death, hurt, confusion, unforgiveness, and baggage, baggage and more baggage I want to scream out to the heavens, “Who is in charge?” These are good people who have tried their best. These are people who have obeyed, have followed God, have surrendered and still their lives are falling apart like dollar store Christmas stockings. There have been moments when I’ve held my arms up to the heavens and called out, “Tell me, God, WHO is in charge? Because from where I’m standing this isn’t right. This is not how it was supposed to be, God.” He always listens and catches my tears before He whispers, “Of course it isn’t.” We all know our world is a far cry from God’s intention when He placed Adam and Eve amidst a garden who’s valleys were covered in blue bonnets not divorce and whose mountains were red with Autumn maples not the bloodshed of unborn babies and war ravaged nations. Do we not realize that were we to count every drop of rain that fell from the heavens we would not yet reach the total of the tears I am sure God has wept on our behalf. We were and still remain His creation—a people made not just in love but in His very image. But we have not been watching. And in the meantime, there is nakedness and shame roaming the streets of our lives. On that day when my sister and I faced the accusing pointing finger of Mrs. Sylvester we knew we had failed. Of that there was no question and we didn’t even offer a defense. I’ll be truthful—it was her day to be in charge and the very first words from my mouth were my sister’s full name. I called out her name and pointed directly at her with bold accusation. No way was I going to take responsibility for this when it wasn’t my day to be in charge! If I could go back I would do it differently. I’d have walked up to my baby sister and grabbed her hand. I’d have thanked Mrs. Sylvester and told her it wouldn’t happen again, and I’d have sat down with a stack of books a mile high and begun to read to that sweet little girl. But I don’t get a do over and the truth is that I pinned the blame on my sister because it was her official day to be in charge. Aren’t we like that? When the walls crumble and the facades are all seen through, when the truth of our lives finally rears it’s ugly face we are so quick to point a finger at someone else. It isn’t my fault this happened. If he or she had done this or that we’d never have been in this situation. It’s never our fault. We always want to shift the blame to someone else. But here’s the thing—it’s not about fault or blame. It’s about who will take responsibility from here on out to see that they conduct themselves in a manner worthy of the image of our Creator. That’s what it’s about. When we ask who failed, we ask the wrong question. What we need to ask is “Who is willing now to stand up and get it right?” When you and I die we will not answer for the person who was supposed to be in charge, we’ll not answer for our sisters, our brothers or our spouses. We’ll not answer for our employers, employees, negligent banks, friends, parents or anyone else. We will answer only for ourselves. But the thing is that when we’re confronted with the sometimes harsh truths of our lives we don’t like accepting responsibility. Maybe that’s because we’re filled with pride and don’t like admitting that we bombed. Just today my boys were outside playing football. They were utterly engrossed in their game and one of them just couldn’t bare the thought of stopping to use the restroom. You know how this tale ends—we had a little accident. And here’s the funny part—that little man immediately blamed it on his other brother. He insisted that had the other brother not been playing football with him he never would have had the accident! I about laughed out loud. We just hate accepting responsibility for our choices and decisions when they go awry. The thing about that kind of pride is that it fails to recognize that apart from God we can do nothing. Of course we bomb when we are not functioning under the umbrella of God’s Word. Of course we experience mayhem when we’re in a marriage where one partner lives outside of God’s will. It’s never fun for the partner who is obeying God, but the reality is that anytime we are in a relationship or situation where one person fails to obey God or operate their life within the framework of God’s standards we will experience fallout whether or not we are the offending party. My little sister at two years of age was in no way responsible for opening that door and walking into harms way. But the two older sisters who were not carrying out our responsibility certainly were on the hook for what happened. The sad reality is that had some predator been in our neighborhood that day our little sister would have experienced a dreadful consequence of our failure to keep our eyes on her at all times. Unfortunately that happens to obedient Christians all the time. And every single time it is tragic. Every single time it happens we want to know again and again who IS in charge? And if Jesus could with nail-scarred hands pry back the sun like paper and peer out from behind that yellow ball I believe He’d say, “Dad’s in charge. And He’s working.” He’s working. Oh how we need to hear that. How we need to believe those two simple words and repeat them over and over every single time we are plagued with questions and doubts. Philippians 1:6 says “He who began a good work in you will be faithful to complete it.” God began a work in our lives and He will not quit, will not falter, will not slumber, will not retire, will not give up or give in. His promise is that He WILL complete the very work He began in our lives. Psalm 115 says “Not to us, O Lord, not to us! But to your name bring honor, for the sake of your loyal love and faithfulness. Why should the nations say, “Where is their God? Our God is in heaven!” I love the idea that it’s God’s reputation at stake when we face daunting storms in our lives. When we are the little girl being returned to our home completely vulnerable and afraid and someone asks who in the world is responsible for this? Without hesitation or question we can boldly proclaim, “God Almighty is in charge and He is already at work to restore to us those things that were lost.” The only difference between a believer and a non believer in this life is that the believer can say with complete confidence, “My God is in heaven! He lives and He is working in my life all things for my good.” We may not be able to see any good that can come from circumstances in our lives, but if good is promised in God’s word then we WILL experience that goodness. We will. And we must live like we believe our God has eyes to see and ears to hear the situations and circumstances of our lives. Psalm 115 goes on to say, “You loyal followers of the Lord, trust in the Lord! He is their deliverer and protector. The Lord takes notice of us, he will bless—he will bless the family of Israel, he will bless the family of Aaron. He will bless his loyal followers, both young and old.” These are words we can stand on, cling to, breath and live by when we want desperately to question whether God is really in control of our lives. He is, a thousand times over, He is. And if God is in control then without question the outcome will be for our eternal good. May we learn that truth in our life is God. So often we get confused and think that the present reality of our lives is the end. If it is reality, then it is truth we assume. But actually the truth is God amidst every single facet of our lives. And that truth is good—all the time. Lord, help us to stand on truth. Help us to stand on you God, knowing that you are good. Knowing that you are faithful. Knowing that your love for us is everlasting. Knowing that in the very center of the greatest trials of our lives, You stand calm and speaking peace into our spirits. Thank you for being an “ever-present help in times of trouble.” Help us to accept responsibility for our actions and trust that You are greater than all of our mistakes and You are even greater still than the mistakes that befall us at the hands of others. Amen. (P.S. I changed Mrs. Sylvester's name)

Thursday, November 6, 2008

And The Leaves Have Fallen

The fencepost trunk of a maple whose limbs only days ago were roosters crowing scarlet red across a bluebird sky now stands bare--all of it's glory scattered and blown by autumn's wind. I have admired this particular maple from my window for over a week now and I'm sorry to see it's leaves flitter and fall. Soon they will be nothing more than the very soil out of which they first grew. How quickly--only a matter of seasons, less than a year--that tree went from being adorned by hundreds of peridot and then garnet leaves to nakedness. Aren't our lives so similar? On Monday a woman is surrounded by her husband and children and on Friday her husband has left for another. In Summer business was booming and in winter the driveway stands empty of the truck he could no longer pay for because business was dead. The sun shone high, retirement in sight and the stock market fell like bricks from the open bed of a truck. Now he is seventy and will take a part time job as a grocery bagger to pay for his living expenses. Yesterday they were married and today she buries him--only a few seasons of love and family spanned the distance between their bands of gold and the shovels of soil on his coffin. How in the midst of lives where people and possessions shift transiently through like crimson leaves do we continue to stand as the trunk of that maple outside my kitchen window? Tell me how we continue to love when God allows loss? Tell me how we continue to hope when God allows terminal diseases to wrestle the life out of a sweet child's body? Tell me how we have faith when we find ourselves standing alone with hands whose only contents are the flesh that glove them? When everything we thought was ours is now a pile of leaves in which others play and we are left staring at God alone, then tell me is that enough? Naomi met the autumn and winter seasons of the soul early in life. A desperate famine and the inevitable urge to provide for his family drove her husband to take Ruth and her sons to a land far from her family. I too have lived many miles from the family where I grew up. I know the ache she felt for her sisters and her parents--intense at first like a hammering on her chest cavity and then as the years passed only a dull weight woven into the strands of her heart within where others couldn't see. Only days ago I hugged the neck of a dear friend who would lock the doors of her own home and drive hundreds of miles south with her family to a place where work was more plentiful. Naomi's family may have moved because the wheat and barely no longer grew in her region but our families move too--because the work has ceased to exist. Famine. We know that name, don't we? We call it a declining economy; unemployment. We know what it's like to leave people and places we love. The Bible tells us that some time later her husband died leaving she and her two sons alone. Alone. We lose those we love in this life. It is the nature of life that death befalls and inevitably someone is left to mourn the soul who has shifted to the wind of eternity. Within ten years Naomi laid soil on the carcasses of her only two sons. God, please forbid the day that I would ever bury my own two sons. No mother should have to bury her children. That's not the order of things, is it? Yet that is exactly where I found Naomi this morning when I was studying one of the names of God--El Shaddai. The name, first introduced in Genesis 17:1 means all sufficient one or the God who is enough. Often, especially in the King James version it is translated God Almighty. It's meaning is probably more accurate when it includes the sufficient nature of God in its translation. When Naomi uses this name for God I can't help but wonder if there is sarcasm, a deep sense of irony in her words or if she has simply learned that though she has lost everything God remains enough. Whatever the case, upon return to her native home Naomi is greeted with excitement by her village. She says to them, "Don't call me Naomi! (pleasant) Call me Mara (bitter) because The Sovereign One (The All Sufficient El-Shaddai) has treated me very harshly. I left here full, but the Lord has caused me to return empty-handed. Why do you call me Naomi seeing that the Lord has opposed me and the Sovereign One (All Sufficient God) has caused me to suffer?" (Ruth 1:20,21) Can you see her standing at the center of her village--feet brown with dust and hands empty? "Don't call me by the name you once knew me. I am no longer that woman. The Great Sufficient God has made my life very bitter. I left here with heart and arms full and I return an empty woman. I have been humbled by the very God who is All Sufficient and I now know and call him by that name." Do you know what it is like to feel that the God you sing praises to has treated you harshly? Can you relate to Naomi when she says that this God who she worships has humbled her to the point of emptiness? I am captivated by her use of this name--El Shaddai--for a God who allowed such incredible tragedy in her life. The Hebrew word carries with it the tone of a mother who nurses her babe at her breast--that perfect sufficiency of a mother's milk superior to any other form of sustenance. Would I, in God alone find perfect sufficiency? Would I, in Him find all I want or need or thirst for? If material things were taken from me I am certain I'd feel humbled, but I think I'd still cling to God and call Him good. But if my husband and children were taken? Then still, would I call Him good? When God promises in His Word that He will supply all of our needs according to His riches, when He insists that He came to give us life to the fullest, when He declares I am with you always I am tempted, I believe, to confuse my own perspective with His. When He says He'll supply my needs can I conclude that means He will always feed my empty stomach? Ask the child in a remote village in Africa if God has failed to meet his hunger-swollen belly's needs. And when He says He came to give us life am I to assume that means that somehow that life embodies some form of ease throughout our earthly sojourn? Ask the families members of those who saw the waters of hurricane Katrina or the Tsunami about abundant life. What then do I believe about these promises? Do I come to believe that God's word isn't true or is in some way conditional? I have often quoted that verse about God supplying all our needs. I believe that God is who He says He is when He calls Himself Jehovah-Jireh, but I don't think we always understand the reality that only God knows what we need according to His plan and will. I only need sustenance in physical form if I am to remain on earth for a time longer. My greatest need has been met some time ago when Christ died and rose again--salvation. If the time appointed by God for me to return to Himself has arrived, then it could be possible that my physical needs would no longer be met because in fact, they would no longer be needs. The soul does not need sustenance for it's time in eternity. I must learn to measure my needs not through the filter of my human perspective but rather through the filter of God's divine plan. I hope you can hear my heart--I'd never say God would choose to neglect children who are starving. Never. His original plan included a perfect garden where we would never want for any physical thing, but we messed that up. What has happened since is a result of the reality of sin in our world. His first intention was NEVER for the pain or suffering of those He created. But it is reality now. And in that reality God has promised to meet our needs. That said, I believe it is necessary to take a long hard critical look at what we believe about our lives here on earth. If I believe that my every need as I see it is to be met then if it is not I will face a crisis of belief and a great disillusionment with a God who disappointed me. If however I can see the world through a lens not my own--that vantage point that is divine and therefore given me only in occasional glimpses--then perhaps when tragedy and loss in this life occurs I will accept it differently. Naomi could never have seen what God saw--she needed to leave her family and travel with her husband to the land of Moab because it is there that one of her sons married Ruth. Ruth, you will remember, is in the very lineage of our Savior, Jesus Christ. She needed to lose her husband and sons so that she would return to her village and there find Boaz for Ruth to marry thus continuing the lineage leading to Jesus. Like a scarlet thread the weaving of Christ's lineage began centuries before and not one of those families knew how the ordering of their lives would someday result in the salvation of mankind. Their tragedies, pains and losses were not explained but they still believed in a God who somehow remained sufficient. Hebrews says it well, "Therefore since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, we must get rid of every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and run with endurance the race set out for us, keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith." (Hebrews 12:1,2a) It is true that we cannot always see the sufficiency of God with our human eyes. "But faith is being sure of what we hope for, being convinced of what we do not see." (Hebrews 11:1) I cannot always see how God alone would be enough were I to lose everything and everyone I loved. But His word I know to be true and if God calls Himself The All Sufficient One then may I root myself in that name no matter what the winds of life may take from my branches. I can't help but consider again the naked tree outside my window. Christ too knew about the leafless body of a tree. It became His death cross, but it bridged the gap to The Life for all humanity. While on this earthly parenthesis in the eternity of my soul I pray that my eyes would be fixed on the person of Jesus Christ who found His Father sufficient even as he hung on a cross bleeding, naked and alone. It is in Jesus that I know I find the abundant life promised me. After all He claimed without hesitation, "I am the way, the truth and THE LIFE." (John 14:6) May we discover that the very life for which we hunger exists not in any earthly person or thing but in the eternal and divine person of Jesus Christ whom we possess always because He possesses us. Amen. Listen with me: Give Me Jesus--Fernando Ortega

Friday, October 24, 2008

For Unto Us a Child is Born

I just got word that my dear friend has given birth to a precious baby girl and I am naturally overwhelmed with delight and joy. The last few weeks were busy for her with work, two other children and the long list of things that demand attention without respect to her final days of pregnancy and the inevitable resulting exhaustion. I know that this tiny babe enters the world at a time when our economy is teetering on the brink of some sort of abyss--whether it's a ditch or a canyon. This little one enters the world amidst an election where the lives of other babes are potentially at stake. It enters the world when moms and dads are both working hard to make ends meet and when one in every one hundred people will become a prisoner! It enters the world where the environment is slowly giving way to the pollution that results from our greed as a nation. Wow. Welcome to the world little one. We've been working hard to prepare a place for you. Hmmm. But you know what? That sweet, soft, powdery package entered the world at the sovereign hand of an all-knowing, all-powerful God at this precise moment in time because God Himself chose to begin the earthly life of that eternal soul right now. And the very fact that it came is evidence of the God who still reigns sovereign over this planet where the created continue to defy their Creator. This pink-flannel wrapped babe is unaware that it's tiny fingers, toes and lips sing out the song of her Creator--the lyrics and melody that quiet the fears and worries of all who take the time to notice. God gives life. God numbers our days. God remains able and capable though we may think somehow He's lost control. My inbox is flooded daily with political emails and I believe we should make informed decisions, but let me tell you I believe more firmly than ever that God is sovereign in this world today. A quick read of the first few chapters of Matthew--the account of the arrival of another babe--Jesus--is all it takes to remind me of God's sovereignty despite man's intent. The wise men (keep in mind they are called WISE, but even the wisest among us can't pre-discern everything) went directly to Herod to locate Jesus' whereabouts. In other words, unknowingly, they alerted an evil King to the whereabouts of the King of Kings. Not a good idea. And naturally, Herod planned to kill Jesus immediately. You know the story. God--who remained in control of the situation--came to the wise men in a dream and told them not to tell Herod where they found Jesus. Then the Angel of the Lord warned Joseph to flee to Egypt. Herod learned he'd been fooled by the wise men and went on a baby killing spree somewhat foreshadowing of the legalizing of abortion today. Then eventually Joseph is told to move again and he ends up in Nazareth. Here's the thing that catches my breath--God had a plan for the life and the death of Jesus and NO ONE could thwart that plan. No one! Not the King Herod, not the wise men lack of discernment, not the pharisees or the Sadducees. No one. And for Christ's disciples at the time of His death, I am SURE that they must have been convinced that the execution of their innocent leader was way wrong. Yet we all know that in truth it was a part of God's master plan. Isaiah 14:27 says, "Indeed, the Lord who commands armies has a plan, and who can possibly frustrate it? His hand is ready to strike, and who can possibly stop it?" More than anything I want to know that the God I love is completely and utterly untouchable--and He is. If the impending election can somehow alter the ultimate goals of my heavenly Father than He is no longer worthy of being called all-powerful. If the gloomy economy can somehow effect God's ability to provide, than I can no longer call Him Jehovah-Jireh. If this precious new baby born only hours ago into this world has a future without hope than I can no longer call my Jesus the Christ of hope. In my opinion, the outlook for this child is no different than the outlook for you and for me on the days we were born. It is infinitely and eternally good should she choose to accept Christ as her savior one day. The book of Matthew skips most of Jesus' youth and pretty quickly goes from his flight-filled infancy and toddlerhood where as a family they were watching their backs in fear of Herod to the moment when Jesus was tempted by Satan in the wilderness. Here Jesus faced an intense trial armed only with the Word of God. He stood not on what He saw, but on the truths He knew. I desperately need to take my eyes off of what is seen in the world around me and burn them into the truths I know. Here's what I love. After Jesus spent that time facing the greatest trial of his life, the Bible says, "Then the devil left him, and angels came and began ministering to his needs." (Matthew 4:11) I need to live like I really believe the devil doesn't win at the end of our story. God Reigns. He Rules. He wins! We get the fairy tale ending. And in the meantime, God will see that our needs are ministered to. I love that in the moments following my great struggles and concerns of life, God ministers to the deep places in my soul. Over and over and over again. A new life arrived today and for this little child who is unaware of all that her world contains, the future is good. And for those of us who are aware of all that exists in our world today, may that baby be a visible reminder of our Creator who remains untouchable. May we walk in the truth that "The Lord frustrates the decisions of the nations; he nullifies the plans of the peoples. The Lord's decisions stand forever; his plans abide throughout the ages. How blessed is the nation whose god is the Lord..." (Psalm 33:10,11)

Thursday, October 16, 2008

My Pending File Overfloweth

I have always had some sort of "pending file" that I keep. The contents of course vary from bills awaiting payment, letters yet to be returned and pictures I'd like to blow up and frame. There are weeks on end when that file is nearly empty. I love it when it is like that. At present, I keep the file under my laptop and when it begins to get rather full, the computer totters atop the pile reminding me of contents awaiting my attention. I can't help but draw the comparison between that file and my Christian walk. There are times in the passing of life when I have an overall sense of having figured things out for the most part--times when things make sense, fall into place and God seems pretty tidily summed up. (No doubt those are probably the times when Jesus calls out to heaven, "Look down there in that little town in Georgia--we're fixing to see some sparks! Old Sarah thinks she's got us figured out again.") And then there are seasons when the horizon is a haze. God seems known and yet still unknown and unclear. Present, yes, very present, but just not so neat and tidy. Things don't all make sense--I have more questions than answers and more pending concepts than completed ideas. I don't begrudge these times--they're the Jacob wrestling with God all night sorts of seasons when in the end, I always know that in some way I'll be marked, changed. The change for Jacob was a new name and a limp when he walked signifying to all mankind that he had contended with God. Jacob wasn't exactly worthy of God's blessing in my opinion. After all, he stole his brother's blessing, he favored Rachel's children and had a very dysfunctional family. But God, in His sovereignty and goodness chose to bless a man completely unworthy. The truth is, I'm not much different than Jacob. My life doesn't match his in terms of where I'm weak, but that there is weakness and failure is evident to anyone who knows me. But we kid ourselves if we think that having it all together--an empty pending file if you will--somehow renders us more worthy of God's blessings and presence in our lives. In fact, the more I consider the patriarchs of the Bible the more I see that God blesses those people in spite of who they are and not at all because of who they are. It's so easy to conclude that we need to "be a good Christian" and that in so doing we will find ourselves the recipients of God's goodness. We are the recipients of God's goodness because we choose to accept His goodness first in the form of His Son's finished work on the cross and second in our day to day lives by appropriating the blessings He has already poured out on us. By that I mean to say that "His divine power HAS given us EVERYTHING we need for life and godliness..." (II Pet 1:3) And by appropriate I mean we apply the truths of God's word to our lives like putting moisturizer on our face. We have the moisturizer in our bathroom vanity, but it is only useful if we put it on. It is the same with the blessings of God--they are only useful if we know what they are and choose to put them on. But that they are readily available to all who believe despite how messy or neat their lives are is not ever to be questioned.

Back to the pending file--we all have them. Sometimes they're overflowing and sometimes they're empty, but we have them. There are times in life when things are unfinished and messy but we are loved as much in those moments as we are loved when things are orderly and completed. We journey. We do not arrive here in this life. We journey. And on that journey, we are loved infinitely and completely to such an extent that if we were to grasp utterly the magnitude of that love we would want for nothing. What I hope though is that amidst the seasons when my file is full and there seem to be unfinished items scattered throughout, there will be overwhelming evidence that my wrestling is with a sovereign and good God. It's my prayer that I won't leave the place of those encounters unchanged.

Perhaps you are like me in that there are times when you look around your life and think there's a lot that's left to be done. In those times perhaps the greatest truth we can chew on is this--I am loved. Loved abundantly. Loved utterly. Loved greatly. Loved eternally. Loved unconditionally. Loved amidst the mess.

Pray with me:

Lord, as I look around at the hills I am reminded that my help comes from you--maker of heaven and earth--and maker of the hills. Lord, I know there's not a single thing in the pending file of my life that wasn't first filtered through your hands. Teach me to look not at the hills but at You, The Lover of my Soul. Teach me to surrender to You amidst the wrestling. Amen.

Read with me: II Peter 1: 1-11, Psalm 121

Monday, October 6, 2008

When we Live as Though we are Loved

Recently when I logged into my email there was waiting for me a 'check-up' email from a very dear friend. An area with which I have been wrestling was the topic of the email and I had asked my friend to hold me accountable. The truth is that I hadn't had a lot of success in this area in the last week and typically I would be dreading the faithful accountability my friend offered but when I saw the email sitting like a candle in my inbox I felt encouraged--even happy. I thought to myself, "How odd that I am happy to see that email when I have so little good to report." The truth of the matter is that I know her heart so well that I know without a single question that this person loves me to pieces and her sincere hope is for God's goodness to come about in my life. I also realize that she does not judge me based on failure or success, but based on my heart. She knows my heart's intentions and loves me for the contents within my soul. Though I knew I'd have to report some failures I also knew that her disappointment would not be "in me" but "for me" as I had before me this week the choice between God's very best and some mediocre counterfeits. If she suffered any grief over my report it would not be in me as a person but a sincere sadness that someone she loved made poor choices. Few humans can separate people's actions from people's hearts. But her unconditional love changed how I felt about her faithful encouragment in my life. Here's the thing--God's love for us is that way times a million, and most of us just don't live like we believe that. We say we believe it, but we do not live like it. God used my friend's email to remind me of His own feelings towards me despite my inadequacies. Ephesians 1:4 says, "For He chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world that we may be holy and unblemished in his sight in love." That verse packs a whole lot of truth into one relatively short sentence. For the God of the universe, of all creation, of you and of I, chose us -before the earth was formed, before the sky shone light or dark, before the stars were strung--to be encased in Jesus. When God sees us, He sees two things--a person who is holy and a person who is unblemished. Do you follow that with me? As a follower of Jesus, standing before God with our failures, our lists of mess-ups and our relative unrighteousness God still sees holiness and an unblemished creation. I know. I know. He sees holiness because we are in Christ and Christ is holy. He sees unblemished people because we are clothed in Christ's righteousness and therefore we appear like a spotless lamb. And none of that is really us. That's all Christ. But when He really looks at just us....WOE. Stop right there. That's the point. We've got to get our heads around this reality--it's NOT just us anymore. "I have been crucified with Christ, and it is NO LONGER I WHO LIVE, but Christ lives in me. So the life I now live in the body, I live because of the faithfulness of the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me." (Gal. 2:20) From the moment we become a follower of Jesus we are never again seen alone in the nakedness and shame of our sinful and broken state. When God looks on us He sees Jesus--every single time. We are dressed in Jesus. We may not behave like Jesus, we may not think like Jesus, we may not act like Jesus, but we are in Him nonetheless. We need to know that because so much of our theology comes from the words we hear instead of The Word and we don't always realize the two don't line up. We hear things like, 'we don't want to disappoint God' and assume that somehow if we can disappoint him we must also be able to please Him. He is pleased--trust me--He is "well pleased." He's well pleased with us, but not because of us, because of who we are in--Christ. "I do not set aside God's grace, because if righteousness could come through the law, then Christ died for nothing." (Gal. 2:21) The thing is that we are loved in such a way that is completely apart from ourselves and anything we will ever do or not do. We are loved without condition because we are not loved based on our own righteousness, but based on the perfect spotless lamb of Jesus and if we think that in anyway we can appear before God in a pleasing way in our own merit we sell short all that Jesus did for us on the cross. When we say with our mouths that we can't earn God's favor but then turn around and nearly deify people who appear to have it altogether. The question must be asked, if God's pleasure in us can be related to our good doings, then, as believers, can it not also be related to our wrong doings? The answer, I believe--however controversial, is NO. Like a candle glowing in a windowsill over the holiday season, God's love is an everlasting love. It's presence in our lives is not in anyway conditional on how we behave, how together we are, or how much of a failure we are. And when He checks up on us, like my friend did, it is for our good. It is not God's intention to condemn us but to empower us. His desire is not to point out our failures, but to spur us on toward love and good deeds. When we sing of God's amazing grace we are singing of God's amazing "unmerited, unearned, undeserved favor" not His grace that saves us and then somehow becomes conditional. It's my hope that in a world where even amongst Christians we can feel a spirit of condemnation and a sense that in some way we need to perform in order to prove our worth, I may walk as one who is loved. Loved not for what I've done but because I am God's creation and I am dressed in God's Son. Those two things will never change and therefore, I am forever loved. If we can learn to walk in that truth, I believe the world will inevitably be drawn toward the irresistible warmth of the God whose scripture insists that above all "the greatest of these is love." (I Cor. 13:13) Perhaps Christ Himself said best what I fear happens all too often among sincere people who desperately want to obey and honor their heavenly Father. "Therefore pay attention to what they (experts in the law or scribes) tell you and do it. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy loads hard to carry, and put them on men's shoulders, but they themselves are not willing even to lift a finger to move them..." (Matthew 23:4) If after walking away from a sermon or a book intended for spiritual growth we feel weight like a burden or that there are a list of things we need to do to improve upon ourselves could it be possible we have misunderstood the intent? Consider again Christ's own words, "Take my yoke on you and learn from me, because I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and my load is not hard to carry." (Matthew 11:29-30) Jesus Himself insisted He came not to condemn the world but to seek and save those who were lost. And the question must be asked if as Christ followers we are walking with a sense of failure and condemnation, then by whom are we being condemned? Many years ago I lead a Bible study on women's character. We went through a book and many were affronted by the contents of the book. Many of the ladies said it felt next to impossible to carry out the author's instructions. I followed the instructions laid out in that book to the letter for a very long time. And I'll be frank with you, I felt like I had something finally figured out. It was a difficult pace I can promise you, and after a couple of years I realized that while her ideas were excellent and well intended they were not a miraculous formula for achieving spirituality. My most spiritual moments in those years were probably on the days when I bombed big time and sat before my heavenly Father looking into His eyes soaking in His love. When I get to heaven I know that God will not commend my efforts in those years as any greater than the years when I basked in His presence and drank up His love like a warming wine. I'm ashamed to have to tell you that I remember looking into some of those women's eyes and saying, "I know this is difficult, but it is right, and your life will be better if you live like this." That I was sincerely trying to obey God and honor Him goes without saying. But as I look back on that study, my heart aches for those young mothers who were struggling to follow a God who seemed so unattainable, so righteous and perfect that to bring Him joy would be nearly impossible. For some, sadly, I believe they came to the conclusion that the goal was too lofty and that the exhaustion that resulted from their noble attempts was just not worth it. They could be better moms and wives if they just focused on their families and quit worrying about trying to please God. Man if I could have a do-over! I'd take those women's hands in my own and I'd say, "God does not care about how perfect you are, He is madly in love with you right now--while you are completely imperfect. He loves you when you are tired from being up all night with that new baby and He loves you when you fall asleep trying to pray. He loves you when you snap at your children and He loves you when you intend to make a romantic dinner for your husband and have the kids in bed early and in fact you end up eating hot dogs with kids crawling under the table. He loves you because you are His creation and He sees in you the perfection of His Son." I'd say it every single week that they came to that study because if we don't believe, live and breathe the reality of God's love in our lives we will not experience the freedom and fullness of life God intends for us here on earth. I write all of this at the risk of being criticized for not discussing James' words about being "doers" of the Word. I write all this knowing people will say you are selling God's love as a ticket to live life as you please. Knowing that people will ask what about the "working out of your salvation?" I know. Trust me, I know it's all in there. But I believe that when a person knows they are completely, madly, unconditionally loved their lives will be transformed. Do we want to live lives that are full of God and discover that we can be more in this life than we ever imagined? Paul prayed to that end when he said, "I pray...that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, so that, because you have been rooted and grounded in love, you may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and thus to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled up to all the fullness of God. Now to him who by the power that is working within us is able to do far beyond all that we ask or think, to him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen. (Ephesians 3:16-21) God's love changes everything. Do we know that love? Really know it? I pray we do. Amen.

Friday, September 19, 2008

When Runaways Remain

Around 25 years ago my sister and I became unhappy with how things were taking in shape in our family. Hidden behind a ridge in the mountains of northern Georgia our hand-crafted cabin bulged with three wild-haired big eyed hippie's daughters. (Later there were five girls, but not then) Our feet tended to be bare and we flowed inside and out with little concern for societal norms. We were raised to love Jesus and the land He painted at creation and for some reason two of us had become disgruntled with what I now realize was a beautiful childhood. It was agreed upon that one of us should run away. Now my sister will tell you that though two years my senior she often shared her ideas with me and then encouraged me to act on them. I don't remember there ever being a discussion as to who was going to do the running, but you can probably guess it was me that ended up packing my bags. Early one morning before the sounds of my mother awoke us we whispered our goodbyes. Before leaving, I boldly climbed onto the counter and helped myself to an unopened box of cereal--a BIG No No. Then I made my way as quietly as possible around the wild cherry tree and down a small slope to the back of the house where the crawl space had an opening. For whatever reason, I felt this was as good a place as any to run away to and so it was there I stayed--a disgruntled, disappointed and frustrated runaway. In the end I think we actually had to tell my mom I had run away. They never even noticed my absence. That may have had a good deal to do with the fact that I didn't manage to stay gone very long. This morning as I was reading in John 15 my memory was washed with the pictures of that childhood story. Verse nine of John 15 says, "As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love..." Eleven times in the first ten verses Jesus speaks the word remain. Remain. The word is well translated as in the Greek it means simply to stay, to remain, to abide or consider Eugene Peterson's translation: "I've loved you the way my Father has loved me. Make yourselves at home in my love." (John 15:9) When you know the depths of someones love you never want to leave. But when the love of those who care for you is called into question then it is human nature to run. If we run then at least we aren't present for the pain of disappointment. Obviously as a little girl I had become disappointed with something happening in our house and I questioned the rightness, the fairness, and the love of my parents. (I had probably been asked to do some unreasonable thing like feed the dogs or fold laundry :-) But my sister and I both felt the best situation was to jump ship, to run. The thought of staying and persevering through something didn't weigh enough to stand a chance against the idea of running. Two and a half decades later I find people still tend to run when things get rough. Some are like me--they don't run that far. The fight they had with their husband just sends them running to call their friend. The frustrations with their children just drive them to the computer. The stress at work sends them for a little retail therapy. The disappointment with themselves sends them to the freezer for the entire container of Moose Tracks. I've been there--literally. Sometimes they run farther though--they leave their marriage. They never speak to their relative again after the last fight. They quit their job and hunt for another one. Sometimes running doesn't seem like running, it seems like a logical solution to avoid a messy conflict. But when we run from God we run from our very source of life and over time the light in our life will flicker and burn out. It may take years, but mark my words it will happen. I've seen it. I've lived it. The two children who lost their mom, the hard working family man who lost two jobs in one year, the family who lost their home, the woman who lost her chance at love all have one thing in common--the choice to remain or run. They're real live people like you and like me and they face insurmountable-how in the world could a good God allow this-it's not fair-it hurts so hard I can't breath-circumstances. They face the gritty questions in life to which there are no good answers and they're hurt, they're disappointed, they're angry, they're frustrated and they're desperate. You better believe they're gonna be tempted to run. The challenges I face seem insignificant compared to those of so many others but still I find myself tempted to throw in the towel too from time to time. I am comforted by the truth that Jesus loves me with the same incredible love that God poured on Him as He faced the gruesome reality of death by crucifixion. What a life changing truth it is when He says to us I love you with that same exact love and I want you to "live in" my love. When you know that you know that you know that you are loved without question you feel so safe, so secure you never want to leave that kind of relationship. My husband has showed me what that kind of love feels like. In him I have found a love that has endured without hesitation or contingency and I've been able to take that picture and paste it on the heart of Jesus to better understand what He means when He says He loves me. To live in the love of God we have to believe in it. We have to stand on the truth of God's Word and declare to our doubting hearts, "My Father will NEVER leave, NEVER forsake, NEVER abandon, NEVER give up, NEVER release us, NEVER fail, NEVER falter. His love is permanent and it is mine." (Hebrews 13:5, Deut. 4:31, Ps. 138:8, Jude 1:24, Romans 8:39) No matter what we face, we face it shielded by the love of God. If we aren't living in God's love it's as if we are a soldier cowering. behind the largest, mightiest, strongest most impenetrable sword ever fashioned shaking and petrified because we can't see the shield. Just because we don't see it doesn't mean it's not there. We are shielded by the God who commands lightning bolts with a single breath. Jesus wasn't removed from the greatest trial known to mankind, He was loved through it and in that love He found the strength to carry out the most heroic mission of all time. Only after He made it through death did God raise Him to His right hand. Joseph didn't receive a 'become the pharoah's right hand-man' free pass. First he was loved through a pit, and prison terms and then he was lifted up into the position God had planned all along. What about Esther? God didn't just change her king's heart and spare her people, He loved her through the fear of risking her life to save her people. Trials are a reality of this life. Disappointment. Pain. They are the stories of the heroes of the faith. But they are only fleeting emotions in the lives of those warriors--the permanent backdrop for every single one of these stories is the guaranteed love of God. Without exception His love is our guarantee. I Cor. 13:13 says, "And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love." When we lose faith, and we will, when we give up hope, and we will, may we remember the greatest of all--the God whose very name is LOVE. In His love may we remain. Pray with me: Lord, Your name is love. Your love is so unfathomable. But I have to admit there are times when I want to scream why, God? Why do you allow pain into our lives? Why do you allow heart break? Why? And yet, Lord if you never answer the why's, won't you fill me with belief in the truth of your remaining love. God help me to live in that love. Help me to linger there, to stay, to put my suitcases down and grab hold of your love with all my might. Thank you, Father. Read with me: Jude 1:21 Listen with me: God loves you--Deborah Klassen

Thursday, September 18, 2008

When the Shoreline Changes

One week ago yesterday I sat in the same row of padded brown folding chairs as a woman with the hair of Greek goddesses and eyes like the sea. She was no stranger to me. A little over two years ago we sat in the same chairs circled around a table in a Sunday School class. As our conversation unfolded, I discovered she had been from New York as had my mother. We shared that in common. As tides flowed in and fell out over the last two years we saw one another--interacted here and again there. I doubt I'm wrong if I tell you I probably watched her far more than she was ever aware of me. Attending the same church doled out opportunity after opportunity to take her in. She was beautiful. It was hard not to notice her. Now, one week later, she is in the presence of God. In an instant the shoreline of our church was permanently altered and with it the lives of her children. In an instant. During her memorial, I felt like someone had forced a vacuum down my throat and turned it on as I listened to the sobs of a little girl robbed of her mommy echo throughout the sanctuary. Overwhelmed by a compelling to fly over the pew separating us and take that precious baby into my arms in human effort to withdraw her pain, I gripped the seat instead. There were many surrounding those sweet children, lifting them up. My best contribution was just to pray; to plead the mercies of a gracious Father over them. There is no answer to the why of tragedies like this--except to say that they are not God's intention. Never, NEVER are they God's plan. But ALWAYS He uses them to bring us to Himself. When left at sea in a fitful storm the only way home is to gaze steadily on the lighthouse's glow. It's the same in life. Amidst gales of inexplicable force, the only way to find home is to look to the light of a merciful, loving and very present heavenly Father. What there is though, in times like these, is the reminder that not one of our days is a guarantee. God's word tells us that our days are numbered, but there's no list telling us who gets how many. If I were to treat today as my last, how would I live it? There's a country song about a guy who finds out he's dying. He sings about going sky diving, rocky mountain climbing and riding a bull--all things I wouldn't mind trying my own hand at. But that's not how I'd spend my final day. What about you? Have you ever considered that question? When God puts people, spouses and children, into our lives everything is changed. I want my husband and my boys to know that they were loved desperately until at times I felt I couldn't breath with the intensity of it. I want to know that my boys are going to continue loving God. I want to know that I did everything I could to fill them with the knowledge of God and His love for them. I want to know I have taught them that God is the source of life and of hope. I want them to know that above all else in life the thing that matters is that they love God. I wonder how much time we spend taking kids to lessons, to sports, to friends houses for sleepovers compared to how much time we spend talking about the heart of God with them. I can give my children every educational opportunity, athletic chance and material thing in the entire world but if I don't give them God I have given them nothing at all. Nothing. This dear lady did something very well. Every Wednesday I saw her at our church with a smile that never fell as she sat in the front row on the padded brown chairs. At her seat, she did the motions to the songs the kids dance team performed. Often I noticed how her daughter--a member of the team--would glance at her mom to make sure she was right on track and her mom was there doing the motions with her, never missing a beat. But she showed that little girl so much more than the motions. She showed her that God mattered and that being a part of the family of God was important. Without question that little girl saw a mother who's commitment to God and her daughter were unwavering. What a legacy. May it be said of us, "Her commitment to God and her family never wavered." If there were one thing I could tell young mothers like myself I believe it would be don't feel guilty about choosing your spouse and your children first. There is not a week that goes by that someone doesn't call with a request--this committee, this luncheon, that children's program, that get-together. And probably ninety-nine percent of the time I have to say NO. Not now. Not this time. I always try to pray about any decision and there are times when God allows me to say yes. But if I never have another tomorrow, I want to know that I spent today investing in the two stewardships God entrusted to me--my husband and my boys. Those are my priorities. And I'll not apologize. In me, my children will never have a perfect mother and my husband certainly did not get a flawless wife, but by the grace of God may they have found a reflection of His heart in their wife and mother. Pray with me: Lord, I ask you to pour out healing on the precious hearts of these children who have had their mother taken from them into your presence. Lord, may I learn from this. Give me a heart that so lives in your presence that when I make the transition from this life to eternity I don't even notice I've left earth. Lord, endow me with knowledge as you did Daniel. Knowledge to teach my children about you in a way that they too become desperate after your heart. In Jesus' name. Amen. Listen with me: Legacy--Nichole Nordeman Read with me: I John 4:7-10 Ecc. 3

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Stay For a While

I can't remember when I stopped singing lullabies to the boys. It had to of happened sometime since our move to Georgia, but I can't place the point in time. It never would have been a conscious decision, of that I am sure. I would sing them lullabies for the remainder of their days of they would permit me. Was it when I took that job at the preschool and came home so exhausted that I could barely keep my eyes open much less manage a stanza of some sweet melody? Maybe it was during the summer when they were staying up so late that sleep just seemed to drift over all of us at various intervals without a great deal of forethought? But the other night the realization washed over me like the rain that has poured over us the last few days after long drought--I haven't been singing to the boys. I wondered if they would even want me to sing again. After all, I am the mother of the very child who poked his 9 month old chubby pointing fingers into the holes of his ears when I got a little carried away with O Danny Boy one evening. Maybe they'd outgrown the pitchy scratches of my karaoke quality voice. I risked it. Beginning with my youngest seemed the best choice given that he still likes to be coddled and nuzzled at bedtime in particular. Before I knew it he was making requests and by the time I left the bed of my eldest, I'd sung six songs and both were resting peacefully. How is it possible to forget to sing your own precious little ones a lullaby at bedtime? I'm not guilting over it--they're 8 and almost 6--it isn't that they've been deprived of anything or that they even really still need me to sing to them. But it is such a sweet ritual, a tradition that cushions the ending of a day filled with triumphs and struggles, with hurts and happiness. Last night my husband had a few things to do after giving the kids their Bible time and so I lingered there with nothing else on my agenda. I ended up reading to them for over an hour. We are a reading family and do that quite a bit throughout our day, but generally at night time, I leave them to read by themselves if they wish. Corton, my youngest said, "This is unusual for you, mommy." "What?" I asked him knowing what he was going to say. "You don't usually stay for a very long time and keep reading and reading. I like it." Again, I'm not saying I should read every night for an hour and sing them thirty songs--but somehow we had been missing something and neither the boys nor myself had ever noticed. Somehow in the middle of building a house, managing homeschool, family gatherings, sports and summer holidays I had stopped lingering in my sweet little boys' presence--even if only for a few moments. And they had missed it. And as any momma knows, so had I. I can't help but think about God--how wonderful it is to linger with Him. To sit, to stay, to remain longer than what seems "enough" and just bask in one another's presence is like hot cocoa after shoveling a driveway filled with snow in Ontario. Sometimes I play a worship song that is very meaningful to me on repeat and listen over and over again, allowing it to soak into the dry places in my heart. Other days I take a verse and write it on a sheet of paper. I leave it in a location that I will be in and out of on that particular day. On errand day it goes in my purse or wallet. On a standard day of home school it goes near the computer we use for some of our schooling. If I'm reading a really good book that I am dying to finish, I'll use the verse as my bookmark. I came across one of those slips of paper just the other day and was reminded again of a full month of basking that I did. "The one true God acts in a faithful manner, the Lord's promise is reliable; he is a shield to all who take refuge in him." (II Samuel 22:31) That passage is so packed with power and truth that I am convinced I could live on it for an inconceivable amount of time. The first four words are enough to cause me to pause and ask myself the question: am I living like I believe God is the one true God? Do I believe that He is Supreme over everyone and everything else? Do I treat Him like He is the source of supply for all of our needs? When I need parenting wisdom who is my one true God? When we aren't sure about financial decisions, who is my one true God? When I struggle with some relationship who is my one true God? Where do I run? Lingering doesn't have to mean that I stay still before my Bible for endless hours while the laundry piles high and the children school themselves. Lingering before God is remaining still before Him in my heart. Will you linger with me today? My prayer is that my heavenly Father will never whisper, "This is unusual for you, Sarah." He's so worthy of our time--He is indeed faithful in the midst of every single detail of our lives. He is indeed reliable. When others falter, He remains steady. And He is indeed a shield to all who take refuge--who linger--with Him. Stay a while today.

Monday, August 25, 2008

The Act of Remembering--Unpacking the passage part 5

After blatantly disobeying some specific instruction or standard set in your household, have your children ever responded with the excuse, "I forgot." Like, "I'm sorry mommy, I forgot that I'm not allowed to hit my brother." Or "I'm sorry I didn't remember I wasn't supposed to hide my dirty underwear underneath the sheets in my bedding." I have one child in particular who often suffers from amnesia. Thirteen times in the book of Deuteronomy the Lord uses the word remember. The specific Hebrew word carries with it a heavy intent--this isn't like an accidental memory that God refers to. This is a calling to mind, a causing to remember, even a laying out of a memorial. The remember that God is encouraging the Israelites to do is a very conscious deliberate choice to recall the events of their history and particularly their years of bondage as slaves and God's divine and powerful intervention and deliverance from those circumstances. I've been focusing on the theme of choosing life--choosing the abundance that God has set before us like a grassy meadow on a long Sunday afternoon. This kind of life is the kind of life that most of us wish for and dream of but have resigned ourselves to fore go for the sake of keeping up with a society that has forgotten and thus pursue temporary alternatives. How do we continue to hunger and thirst after a life that the majority of the world has forgotten or don't even know about at all? We must remember. We are no different than the Israelites. All of us have seen bondage and slavery at some point in our lives. How many of us are remembering the loving Father that swung His strong right arm into the very midst of that bondage and freed us completely? What do you need to stop and remember right now? What moments in time do you need to consciously and intentionally stop and recall in order to boost your faith in God today? I'm remembering with you today. Read with me: Deut. 16:12, Psalm 25

Friday, August 15, 2008

The etching of God--Unpacking the passage part 4

I've been loving my time in the book of Deuteronomy. Though I've read this book through several times God always reveals a greater richness and depth than I took in each time prior. It reminds me of this place in Ontario where my husband and I used to go on the weekends from time to time. We'd take a twenty minute drive out into the country where the city sounds were hushed by the whispering harmonies of Winter Wheat's meandering gardens. An artist's home, a craft boutique of sorts, a chorus of gardens and most of all a tiny haven of refreshment for parched city dwellers, this place offered a new inspiration with every visit. And so it has been with Deuteronomy. Listen as Moses reminds the Israelites of the time they received the second set of commandments from God. "At that same time the Lord said to me, "Carve out for yourself two stone tablets like the first ones and come up to the mountain to me; also make for yourself a wooden ark. I will write on the tablets the same words that were on the first tablets you broke, and you must put them into the ark." So I made an ark of acacia wood and carved out two stone tablets just like the first ones. Then I went up the mountain with the two tablets in my hands. The Lord then wrote on the tablets the same words, the ten commandments, which he had spoken to you at the mountain from the middle of the fire at the time of that assembly, and he gave them to me. Then I turned, went down the mountain, and placed the tablets into the ark I had made--they are still there, just as the Lord commanded me." (Deut. 10:1-5) This week my boys and I have talked at length about rocks and stones--their use to mankind over the years. In particular we've discussed their usefulness as tools for some of the first people God placed here on earth. Did Abel use a spear with a stone tip to kill the first lamb he offered to God? Did God himself use a rock to scrape the animal skins he fashioned into clothing for Adam and Eve after they realized their nakedness before Him? Perhaps though, the most significant use of rock is found here in the Old Testament when God tells Moses to carve two tablets from stone. I love the phrase "Carve out for yourself..." that God uses when he instructs Moses. The Bible describes mankind's heart in various forms, one of which is stone. (Ez. 36:26) There are so many days when my heart carries the weight of the heaviest stone behind the cavity of my chest. Days when it's texture is not smooth or soft within the hands of others, but rough and jagged. Days when the hardness of it can only be likened to a rock's density. A heart of stone is a term with which I am familiar and it is true that I have carried a hard heart more than once in my life. But we serve and love a God who specializes in rocks and stones. God tells Moses to carve out two tablets from stone--not from some soft squishy sweet clay, not from some sifted sand which takes any form, but from stone. To imprint His ways permanently for the people of Israel, God needed something that would not alter over time. God's Word says that he replaces our hearts of stone with hearts of flesh and I love that. I believe Him when he says in chapter thirty of Deuteronomy, "The Lord God will also cleanse your heart and the hearts of your descendants so that you may love him with all your mind and being and so that you may live." Over and over and over in this book God repeats the phrase "love the Lord..." Love him. Just love him. And what is so incredible is that He is willing to cleanse our hearts, make them a space where He can etch Himself into their stone surface, transforming what once was dense rock into flesh and life. To make a space for God to imprint the way of life for the Israelites, Moses had to carve tablets from the face of stone. Carve it out. So often, it is the same for me. It is in the places and points in my life where I've struggled, wrestled the most over things that God has left His indelible mark as He has carved out a space for His image. Carving out is never painless for the heart of mankind--the scraping away of old grudges, painful pasts, and deeply rooted desires not founded in God. The chipping away at habits that don't glorify God, the peeling back of misconceptions and distortions of God's Word--these are all intense and often heart wrenching processes that take time. Rarely do they happen overnight. These are the processes and transformations of the long-haul followers of Christ. Even now as I write God has been carving into my heart the Words, Sarah, I'm worthy of your trust. I AM. And as He carves, He places me in situations where I want to cry out, "No, God, I need to take care of this on my own." As He scratches away deep gashes from the portals of my past He gently whispers I know there have been people in your life who weren't trustworthy, who let you down, but I am not like them. Learn ME. Learn who I AM. Submit to my yoke and you'll rest." And over time as I allow Him to inscribe His ways on my heart, I will reflect the writings of a loving, faithful, good and trustworthy Heavenly Father. This is my purpose in being created--that I would bring Him glory--reflect His character to the world. This was the heart of God when he gave the Israelites those commands too--that they would obey Him and have life. How many of us are like that old movie Dead Man Walking? I never saw it, but the title has always captivated me. Am I choosing ways of death because the way of life--the carving out of the stone of my heart a place soft enough for God to write Himself into it's surface--is too painful, too risky, too radical even? Let it not be so. Most often the book of Deuteronomy is associated with the law, but I believe that is a short sighted understanding. This is a book that begs to echo the heart of God--I love you enough to inscribe myself on stone. I love you enough to give you clear boundaries and a way to live life in abundance. I AM love. Carve out a space for me within your heart. Lord, take your tools and carve yourself into my being. Etch your face and your heart and your character deeply into my heart that it may not fade or wash away with the passing of time. Create in me a clean heart, cleanse me from within--allow me to reflect the perfect law that gives freedom to all mankind. I declare you are a good and faithful Father. I choose today to live in that knowledge. Amen. Read with me: Deuteronomy 30:6, James 1:25, Psalm 51:10