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