Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Choose Life--Part 2 Unpacking the Passage

I woke up this morning with a list of phone calls waiting for me. My niece was due to arrive shortly and the boys would be stirring soon. Laundry was quietly teasing me about how it had been dry for over 24 hours and still hadn't been folded. You all know the tyranny of the urgent--the unwelcome visitor in all of our lives. So here I was, at my desk--cell phone next to me, sticky note with names and errands listed, and my Bible and journal to the left. So simple. Really. Life or Death? Which would I choose to tackle first--bit of time with God or the deafening demands of day to day living? It's easy enough to argue that those kinds of decisions have nothing to do with choosing life or death, blessings or curses--that those types of choices are not relevant. But in fact, I've found that the opposite is true in my own life. Those are the very decisions that open the door to what the remainder of our day will in fact hold. Those are the decisions--little, insignificant, not seemingly important that separate people who live abundantly from people who exist. When Moses began this discussion about life and death with the Israelites he was 120 years old. Basically he tells them, "Look, I'm gonna kick the bucket pretty soon. I'm passing the baton on to Joshua and this is my last chance to lay it all out for you. You're a people that are special to God--He's set you apart as His own. You have got it made. Literally. But you have to choose whether you are going to follow Him completely in obedience or whether you are going to follow your own whims. One results in blessing and the other in curses. It's that simple. You choose life and get blessed or you choose death and you receive nothing." (Deut. 26-30) Here is a man who has spent the greatest part of his adult life leading a group of Hebrews from slavery into freedom. Here is a man who has watched as time and time again these very Hebrews opted to return to their slave-like tendencies and at times even said out loud, "It would have been better for us if we had stayed in Egypt." He watched these foolish people eat food showered down from God himself and turn around and melt their gold into a cow. They stared life in the face and melted their earthly possessions down into the form of death. He knew their weaknesses. I bet he thought in his heart more than once, "I just don't know if they'll make it to the promise land or not. They are like sea grass that sways whatever direction the wind is blowing. They are weak of faith and they are drawn like metal to a magnet back to slavery, to death." So I understand when he insisted they go through it all with him one last time before he gave up his physical shell here on earth. In Deuteronomy 30:11 Moses says, "This commandment I am giving you today is not too difficult for you, nor is it woo remote. It is not in heaven, as though one must say, "Who will go up to heaven to get it for us and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?" And it is not across the sea, as though one must say, "Who will cross over to the other side of the sea and get it for us and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?: For the thing is very near you--it is in your mouth and in your mind so that you can do it." In other words, Moses is saying, "Guys, this is so simple. You don't need some great preacher or some new book or some new approach to understand this. What I am telling you is not locked up in some heavenly realm where only the super spiritual can get it. What I am saying to you is already in your mouths--you've spoken it before to your own children. And it is already in your minds--you can do this!" Then he goes on to say, "Look! I have set before you today life and prosperity on the one hand, and death and disaster on the other. What I am commanding you today is to love the Lord your God, to walk in his ways, and to obey his commandments, his statutes, and his ordinances. Then you will live..." (Deuteronomy 30:15, 16) To have abundant life we must set ourselves in a position to receive it. You can't fill a vessel to overflowing if it isn't positioned under the tap. For a believer, positioning ourselves to receive the overflowing blessing of God we must love the Lord and obey Him. It's that simple. Love and obey. And to make it even more simple--love generally produces obedience as a bi-product. So ultimately we're dealing with just who or what holds our heart's strings. Because if we can follow the path of our heart to who or what may be holding it, we can very quickly determine whether we are positioned under God's tap or whether we are sitting beside it watching the water bursting out like a dam released and wondering why we are empty and thirsty. Lord, in this moment show me the palm that grips my heart. Is it yours, Lord? God help me to let go of the things that are blocking me from being positioned under your overflow of abundant life. Open my eyes that I may see who and what it is that I love, Lord. Cultivate within me a love for you that is greater than any other passion of my soul. Amen.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Choose Life

I couldn't open my eyes--everything became shadows of black and grey. The Dr.'s said I was photo phobic which apparently was a fancy word for extreme light sensitivity. It was a result of an intense headache caused by the infection that had invaded my body. I had been in and out of the emergency room since a standard surgery. For some reason my body didn't heal properly and an infection had taken root. The Dr.'s could not isolate the source and despite their best attempts, life slowly seeped out of my body like the afternoon gives way to darkness of night. I knew it wasn't good and that I needed to fight, but I was so tired and the pain was relentless. If I could just sleep for a few hours, surely I'd feel better. That's what I thought, but it wasn't to be. My condition became worse and the Dr.'s couldn't keep my blood pressure up--my body was choosing death. In those moments, I can't imagine what it was like for my husband. Between fits of consciousness I remember being aware of him, helpless and confused. What could he do? He was at the mercy of a plethora of doctor's best guesses. While they looked at him with blank faces and question mark eyes he silently pleaded to God for help. His wife's body lay grey and limp on a hospital bed and there was nothing in the entire world he could do but pray. And he did. He chose to pray for life. Deuteronomy 30:15-20 says, "Look! I have set before you today life and prosperity on the one hand, and death and disaster on the other. What I am commanding you today is to love the Lord your God, to walk in his ways, and to obey his commandments, his statutes, and his ordinances. Then you will live and become numerous and the Lord your God will bless you in the land which you are about to possess. however, if you turn aside and do not obey, but are lured away to worship and serve other gods, I declare to you this very day that you will certainly perish! You will not extend your time in the land you are crossing the Jordan to possess. Today I invoke heaven and earth as a witness against you that I have set life and death, blessing and curse, before you. Therefore choose life so that you and your descendants may live! I also call on you to love the Lord your God, to obey him and be loyal to him, for he gives you life and enables you to live continually in the land the lord promised to give to your ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob." The few weeks following my surgery is the closest I have ever come to death. I remember snatches and bits of that time like black and white photos from someone else's life. I remember the ambulance ride--I think it was snowing as they carried my gurney into the posterior mouth of the ambulance. I see the black sky interrupted by flashes of white dust. It fell on my cheeks like ashes. I couldn't remember though, what my babies were wearing the last time I was rushed to the emergency room. I couldn't recall the last words I had whispered to them. I couldn't, no matter how desperately I wanted remember the last drink I had poured for them or the last breakfast meal I had served them. All I could see were their eyes sitting atop their plump cheeks and those sweet little eyes weren't ready to say goodbye to their mommy. And I remember insisting, knowing, declaring without a doubt that it wasn't my time to die. My precious little boys were so young--I hadn't seen them come to know Christ yet. I needed to live. And God granted my heart's desire--he extended my days. I don't know why He brought me to that point, but I do know He gave me life on earth for some time longer. Here in Deuteronomy God gave the Israelites the choice of life or death. The implications of that passage are far reaching. Their extension stretches beyond the physical into the spiritual. Scripture says, "The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come so that they may have life, and may have it abundantly." (John 10:10) Make no mistake about it, Jesus' intention for our lives is to give us abundant life--overflowing, continually producing life. The Blue Letter Bible Online Lexicon defines the Greek word used for life here as "life real and genuine, a life active and vigorous, devoted to God." My favorite though are the various words The Blue Letter Bible Lexicon uses to describe the Greek phrase used for abundant. Consider a few of these: "over and above, more than is necessary, superadded, exceeding abundantly, supremely, something further, more, much more than all, more plainly, superior, extraordinary, surpassing, uncommon, pre-eminence, superiority, advantage, more eminent, more remarkable, more excellent." I love the idea that God wants to give me a life that is superadded to by his own Son. The only thing I can liken the kind of life God intends for us is to a brownie. We've all had them--soft and gooey, slightly buttery on the outside and rich chocolate as we bite--brownies are certainly a reminder of how alive we in fact are. But have you ever had one of my brownies? To mine, I superadd. A brownie in my personal opinion isn't good until I've added semisweet chocolate chips to the batter and then I like to blanket the surface with a dark chocolate frosting like a fluffy duvet. There are times when I even add a sheet of cream cheese frosting beneath the dark chocolate layer. Now this brownie is not for the faint of heart--it is for the fully devoted chocolate lovers. The abundant life is for those followers of Christ who are fully devoted--those who continually and consistently choose life. It is my prayer that in the next few posts we can dig into just what it means to choose life pra ctically speaking. How do we choose life from day to day? What does it mean to choose blessing? I believe we make a choice in the words we speak, in the food we consume, in the beliefs we choose to accept as true, in our relationships, in our careers, in our workplaces, with our children and our spouses and our parents. We choose every day whether we will live or whether we will take small steps towards a death. I'd like to dig deeper and I hope you'll join me. Blessings until then, Sarah

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Pipeline

This summer my husband and I spent a week at a local teen camp. It was there that I saw a team building exercise involving PVC pipe and marbles. The pipes had been cut in half lengthwise so that they were a half circle instead of a complete tube. Each individual was given an eight to ten inch section of pipe. As a team, they were to hold their pipes together to form a long channel on which a marble could travel. Each team was given the challenge to start a marble at the beginning of their pipeline and keep their pipes positioned so that the marble safely travels along the channel of pipes and children all the way to the end of the line where it drops into a bucket. They had to get five marbles into their bucket. It sounds simple, but in fact it took quite a lot of time. Someone would move and their pipe would be jostled causing the marble to fly over the edge or drop to the ground. What gripped my heart as I watched these teens--young, full of life and determined to see five marbles land in their rusted coffee can--is that we are holding the pipes for them. They are the marbles. What we do with our lives very often plays a significant role in what happens to them. Don't miss that. What we do affects the lives of those who come after us. Sure, we know that. In theory. But here's the thing--practically speaking, I believe we often forget it. Does it really matter if I faithfully attend church? Is it that important that I continue reading my Bible daily? What's the big deal if my prayer life is virtually non-existent? Who's gonna know? Who's gonna care if I get drunk when I go on vacation? No one's going to know me when I'm on holidays. Every single time we decide it's okay to let this or that slip we are in effect dropping our pipe. We don't know who's coming down the line when we drop our pipe. And we don't know who's life may fall because we decided to sit down a while. Our lives are not islands--singular episodes on the universe. They are attached to God's purposes and therefore are connected in some way to every single individual God will ever create. That's a staggering thought. Overwhelming. If we are created by God then we are a part of His eternal plan for all mankind and therefore there is not one moment in our lives that does not eventually play out on a grand scale. What we do with our pipe matters. When I consider my humble place in the world I almost laugh at the thought that my life affects those outside of my very intimate circle of family and friends. I'm no Billy Graham or Martin Luther after all. And yet it could be that a young Billy Graham was at the very camp where I cheered as marbles plunked into buckets. I once heard a quote I've never forgotten: what we do in moderation our children will do in excess. How true. If I occasionally blow up in anger it is very likely my children will do it regularly. If I occasionally watch inappropriate movies, it is probable that my children will be comfortable watching entertainment that doesn't glorify God often. If I let my pipe drop on the weekends, my children will likely take four day weekends and their children will probably not even pick their pipes up until Sunday. You see what I'm saying, right? Galatians 6:7-9 is perhaps one of the most critical passages in scripture for believers. "Do not be deceived, God will not be made a fool. For a person will reap what he sows, because the person who sows to his own flesh will reap corruption from the flesh, but the one who sows to the Spirit will reap eternal life from the Spirit. So we must not grow weary in doing good, for in due time we will reap, if we do not give up." Powerful words for those contemplating the importance of holding up a pipe that seems cumbersome and exhausting. Powerful words for the lady who's arms have grown weak and who's heart is no longer in it. Powerful words for the person who believes their life is theirs alone--and what they do will not have outer reaching consequences. Satan has won a great victory the day he convinces a believer that what they do with their life will have little to no affect on the lives of those around them. That's a lie and too often, we believe it. We will reap the seeds we sow. Seeds of diligence will bring about a harvest that reflects a life of diligence. Seeds of faithfulness will reap a harvest revealing a life lived faithfully. Seeds of sporadic worship will yield sporadic results. What this is not saying is that if we obey God we will have perfect lives. On the contrary, we may have trouble--Jesus told us we would have trouble in this world. But, if we do not grow weary in obeying the God of the universe we will see a harvest in due time. In moments when we are weary--when following God seems like more effort than fun, when obeying God seems like a waste of time--we must know that there are still more people coming down the line. We must stand firm and hold out because when we drop, others do too. In this life we may never know who came behind us, but when we get to eternity I believe we will discover our lives affected millions in the end. The question then is how will our lives have affected those who came after? It very well could be my children following behind and oh, how I pray they find us all faithful. If, my friend, I could look you square in the face, I'd take your hands in mine and say emphatically. "Hold on. Keep going. Your life matters. Don't give up. God's plan for your life is magnificent and every single day that you persevere on this journey is a day that has eternal impact." God, strengthen our arms, lift up our heads, give us endurance for this journey that we would not grow weary. God empower us with your everlasting arms as we try to stand steady in our walk with you. May we see how ours are lives that will touch those around us. May we be found faithful. In Jesus' name.

Monday, July 7, 2008

The Turtle Perspective Check

Turtles. Not really a creature upon which I'd declare myself an authority. When my sweet friends called wondering if we'd be willing to watch theirs for a week while they went on a mission building trip I was certainly willing...just not really qualified. In fact only a few months prior those same friends blessed us with tadpoles which despite all my Internet research and careful listening to their instructions, I managed to kill in a very short period of time. I mentioned my track record before they dropped the turtle off to which the reply came, "Sarah, turtles are much harder to kill than tadpoles." And with that, the turtle arrived in it's adorable habitat and we were solely responsible for two little girls' precious pet. Two mornings into our care giving I was having a quiet time while the turtle sat on the table next to me having her morning vegetables. Daisy, our cocker spaniel was nestled on the couch. I'd like to say I was so engaged in the presence of God that I didn't hear it at first, but it is probably just that I am rather spacey at times. Irregardless, after a few moments, my mind became aware of the jingling of Daisy's collar. A bug or a stick she's gotten from her morning walk, I thought. And moments later the jingling persisted. Must be a flea that hopped on her outside. And the jingling persisted. That's when it hit me--THE TURTLE! I turned immediately to see Daisy happily eating remnants on my beautiful couch no less! It was like a vacuum cleaner hose was stuck straight down my throat and the air sucked out of me. I couldn't breath. I gasped. I called out loud some sort of desperate prayer. Jumping up, I saw what I can only describe to you as sinew, small bones--tiny little fragile bones--and some flesh of sorts. All I could think is how did she get the shell without me hearing it crunch? How? I wanted to yell at her, but it was my fault. What kind of a person assumes a cocker spaniel and a turtle are going to peacefully co-exist while I engage in a lengthy morning quiet time with two cups of coffee? I looked into the habitat and sure enough--no turtle. I took Daisy outside and told her she'd have to stay out there until I calmed down. My own children were still asleep for which I was grateful. This would buy me some time. How was I going to tell them the little green-shelled squishy creature had been eaten? Dead. It was dead. Apparently turtles are easier to kill than tadpoles...especially when you have a cocker spaniel. As I debated my situation and felt my breath return in the form of hyperventilation and tears climbed up to my eyeballs preparing for a horse race down my hot cheeks already red with the mortifying prospect of confessing I was an accomplice to turtle murder, I concluded the best thing to do would be to go upstairs and bake a pie. After all, isn't that how everyone deals with catastrophe? Cook? Clean? The remains of the little turtle lay patiently waiting on the arm of my couch for me to clean up, but I couldn't bring myself near the debris. So upstairs I went and one chocolate chiffon pie and one house cleaning cleaning later, they still waited. Of course I also phoned my husband and mother for support. My sister called me as soon as she heard the news to offer her moral support. She instructed me to leave the left-overs for my husband to clean when he got home. My mom told me she was just glad the cocker spaniel was okay. What? No help at all. After about an hour of flipping out Martha Stewart fashion, I knew I had to handle it. With hands gloved in plastic grocery store bags and wads of thick paper towel, I headed over to clean up my couch. I won't mention the retching and dry heaving that occurred. As I went to wipe the edge of the couch I saw something in the habitat--what appeared to be just the back of the turtle. The edge of the shell was sticking out of some moss. Oh, please God, no! Did she decapitate it? This is why I didn't hear the shell crack! No. No. No. Retch. No. Dry heave. No. I had to look. What if the poor creature could still feel? I'd have to run over it with my car to put it out of its misery. Slowly I pulled the shell out--completely in tact. The turtle was there; alive and unharmed! Upon closer examination of the habitat I realized what had happened. The owners had put a slice of pizza in the habitat and the dog had found that too difficult to resist. She was eating the pizza! What I thought were tiny bones had been little sticks and debris from the habitat, and the sauce...well I had assumed it to be flesh. While I had run around behaving like a maniac assuming that turtle to have been violently eaten right underneath my nose it had in fact been alive and well burrowed under moss and mud. Romans 8:5, 6 says, "For those who live according to the flesh have their outlook shaped by the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit have their outlook shaped by the things of the Spirit. For the outlook of the flesh is death but the outlook of the Spirit is life and peace..." Now I realize we're talking about a turtle, but here's the thing, my outlook was clearly defined. I assumed the worst before I ever gathered any information. In fact, I didn't bother to examine the situation very closely at all before I declared the turtle dead and called my family for support. Sometimes I need vivid object lessons for God to show me how I respond to life on a grander scale. It's one thing to laugh about the turtle that I thought was dead, but it's an entirely different matter when it comes to perspecitve on life. In the realm of our daily lives my outlook needs to be shaped, molded, fashioned by the life giving Spirit of God. Have you ever met someone who you could only describe as a "glass half-empty" kind of individual? By what is their outlook shaped? The flesh. Our flesh is in slow-motion decay. We can do everything in our power to preserve it. We can eat without ever indulging, we can exercise diligently, we can have lifts and tucks, we can exfoliate away scandalous wrinkles and we can color away gray but we will never prevent the reality that at some point, our flesh has an appointment with the black soil of earth. Death. If we allow our lives to be guided by the reality of our flesh we will be like perpetual Chicken Little's--the sky always falling. We all face reality and often our realities are in fact laced with death, with devastating circumstances, pain, disappointment, failed efforts and attempts, but that is only one side of our reality. For with every single circumstances comes the life-giving truth that God "works all things together for good for those who love God..." (Romans 8:28) God's Word says that an outlook shaped by the Spirit will be that of life and peace. We experience peace when we trust. It's that simple. If we don't trust, we won't know peace. And if we don't know God, we won't trust. Romans 12:2 reminds us that in order to have a Spirit directed perspective on the world around us we need to renovate our minds. "Do not be conformed to this present world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may test and approve what is the will of God--what is good and well-pleasing and perfect." If we fill our mind with the truths of God's Spirit then naturally the fruit of God's Spirit within will overflow from our lives. And "the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control..." (Gal. 5:22, 23a) Two fruit in particular reveal what way we live before we've ever uttered a word. Peace and faithfulness. The word faithfulness was a bit of a surprise to me. I'd always read that passage and thought the meaning was that of an individual who is faithful in their commitments--reliable. But in Greek the word actually indicates being full of faith. Trust. We just can't escape the reality that as we yield our lives to God, as we know Him more and more, as we hide His Word in our heart we will inevitably discover He is worthy of our trust. And when we discover He is worthy to trust, we will be filled with more and more faith. Spiritually speaking we can choose one of two spiralling decisions. We can diligently seek God and in turn our faith grows, our outlook is shaped by the Spirit of God, and as our outlook is shaped by the Spirit of God we will seek Him more, yield to Him more and our faith will further grow. Alternatively, we can choose to rely on ourselves and others around us. As we do, our faith shrinks like a balloon filled with air and then let go. We fly and flit around in a pattern completely unpredictable and out of control. In the end, we will lie worn, deflated, and lifeless on the ground. Romans 8:31 says, "If God is for us, who can be against us?" When my perspective is based on the truth that my Father God is for me in every sense of the word--gunning for me, enabling me, pushing for me, empowering me--I will see events and circumstances as a part of God's life giving plan and peace will reign in my heart. True, it was only a turtle, but now, when I see one of those tiny chartreuse shells toddling across the road or sunning themselves on a log Ill do a quick outlook check. Am I convinced the end of the world is but a cocker spaniel away or am utterly persuaded that my Father God is for me and my future is secure in His hands? Lord, let me honor You by living a life of belief and faith. You deserve my trust. You deserve my praise in the form of a heart that is convinced You are good and You are able and You are working in my life. Shape my perspective, Spirit. Fill my heart that I might reflect your goodness to all with whom I interact. Amen.