Three Cheers for Hanging in There

I have always thought perseverance is the boring virtue. I mean, let’s face it: Is this how I want people to remember me at the end of my life, as “a woman who hung in there“? Perseverance seems way too drab and uninspiring. Keeping on with the everyday of what you’ve been given, and then doing it all again tomorrow. Even when it’s hard. Even when no one notices. Even when it’s not where you want to be.  Perseverance is a slow steady progress that is easy to disparage.

It’s like in Aesop’s old story about the tortoise and the hare, where the fast hare is so confident in his abilities to win that he doesn’t even take the race seriously. And really, who wants to be like the tortoise in the story? No one wants to keep plodding along slow and steady when there are others out there flashing by, to the cheers of the crowd. (And wouldn’t we all rather have life come easily, with plenty of time to play in the meadow and take naps?) Sure, the tortoise won the race, but it wasn’t even through any skill or cleverness or strength on his part. All he had to do was keep on going. Anyone could have beaten the hare with that kind of mindset. But of course that is precisely the point. You can have all kinds of impressive skills, but it means nothing if it makes you careless and distracted. Confidence and charm are pointless if you are going to quit running in favor of indulging yourself, before you hit the finish line. In the long run the character quality of perseverance counts more than buckets of talent and ability, and not just in results. God says it’s actually a matter of who you are becoming on the inside.

Specifically, God says dull old perseverance is a building block of our character. When life gets tough and we find that things don’t come naturally to us, we get to choose whether to run away or to face the pain and let Him use it to grow us. James tells us with the straightforwardness of a Big-Brother, “Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” (James 1:4) Any parent knows that without a worthwhile goal and a plan to get there, hanging on is nothing more than stubbornness. But perseverance is the holding-on strength that gets us to the end God has in mind for us, one step at a time– and James says the result is beautiful. “Count it all joy” because you know the Father is good, and has good things in mind for you.  Paul describes God’s work in us this way: “And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into His image with ever-increasing glory….” Transformation is a long slow life-long race, and we will feel like giving up more often than not, but hanging in there is what enables God to do His glorious work inside.

Perseverance moves you to give grace to that person and try to communicate better, to work together, instead of walking away….even though your heart is hurting. Because healthy relationships matter.

Perseverance inspires you to clean up one more mess….drag yourself out of bed one more time….listen to one more story of playground drama… when what you really want is just eight solid hours of sleep, or a quiet cup of coffee on the porch. Because you know they are worth it.

Perseverance is what keeps you praying long and hard until you have God’s answer. No matter how long it takes. Because you trust His love and His power and His timing.

Perseverance pushes you to face another day of the same old thing: of errands and phone calls and workday and chores that will need to be done again tomorrow. Because these hidden acts of service laid down with love and prayer are building a home and nurturing lives that will last beyond this world.

And it comes by the Holy Spirit at work in us with His power, just like all the other virtues. I need the help, because my own determination wears out after awhile, especially when life gets difficult and complicated. The older I get, the more I value the simple virtue of slow and steady progress– being willing to make many small right choices over and over again, with God’s help, through the changing circumstances of life. It requires unwavering trust that all those smaller, more boring choices are adding up to something wonderful just because God says so. It is simple obedience in the everyday, according to James. “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.” (James 1:22) Hang in there and keep on going. As old Aesop the storyteller said, “slow and steady wins the race.” And this Faith-race above all, is worth winning.

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“Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love Him.” (James 1:12)

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“Thank You for the wilderness
Where I learned to thirst for Your presence
If I’d never known that place
How could I have known You are better?

Thank You for the lonely times
When I learned to live in the silence
As the other voices fade
I can hear You calling me, Jesus

And it’s worth it all just to know You more

You’ve done great things
Jesus, Your love never fails me
My soul will sing, You have done great things”
(Elevation Worship)

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Faith for Whatever Lies Ahead

In this world of so many things gone wrong that we cannot fix, uncertain outcomes, unpredictable circumstances, sometimes all you want is assurances to hang onto. Super-powers would be nice, but I would settle for a burning bush, or fiery chariots, or a shepherd’s rod that can turn into a snake. In our small group we sometimes joke about how neon signs would be helpful when we go looking for direction and assurance, but the joking is just a cover-up for a little bit of frustration and a very real fear that we might get left on our own.  

I think how I might cheerfully throw myself at new under-takings, could bravely face the unknown, if I only had a fleece like Gideon did, letting me know for sure that God’s power was overshadowing me and everything would turn out well. But then I realize how crazy that sounds, because I have seen a fleece in real life: a shaggy, raggedy thing of indeterminate color, and smelling to high heaven when wet. Gideon’s confidence-booster was not very impressive when you take a good look at it– no more significant than any of the things I might hang onto as divine signposts, and isn’t it funny how seriously we wish for them to help us out? Especially when Jesus says to Gideon and to us, “I will be with you….I will stay…” (Judges 6:16,18) Shouldn’t the promise of the Almighty be sufficient?

When I really think about it, what made the fleece significant was the concrete evidence of God living and active, reaching down into the gritty everyday details of a farmer’s life. Because that is what Gideon needed to know most of all– that he was not alone and that there was a God who could work in the many situations Gideon could not control….things like where the dew fell… and who lived and died…and the future of his family. Isn’t that what we all need to know, when it comes right down to it? No wonder we are so keen about that smelly bit of wool.

God was very patient with Gideon’s need to see with his own eyes, touch the wet wool with his own fingers, smell the evidence of divine power with his own nose. But then, Gideon was just meeting the Almighty for the first time, had nothing but old stories handed down through generations to inform his faith. And I hold the God-breathed record in my hands, the revelation of who God Is, the inked words of the Word coming in flesh, and I feel ashamed. Why do I sometimes think it would be easier to understand a piece of wool or wood or weather for answers (just because I can touch them and see them) rather than God Himself? If I cannot put my trust in God’s assurances, cannot trust the Spirit who has made His habitation with me, then isn’t looking elsewhere just a fancy word for idolatry? And why would I expect God to indulge my desire for control, especially when it is only an illusion after all? Granted, there is a learning curve in following the Spirit’s leading, and God is still very patient, but sometimes I just need to step out and act on what He has already said, and trust Him for the outcome.

Interestingly, when Gideon saw God face to face, he named Him Jehovah-shalom…The Lord is Peace. There was an old superstition that to see the face of God meant certain death, so when Gideon realized that it was the Lord Himself who had come to visit him, he was sure it was all over. The Lord is Peace came from his relief that God intended good, not ill, for him. That is what stood out to Gideon about the whole encounter. But after the fact, when he was neck-deep in the logistics of leading an army of beaten-down farmers against a superior foe, when the memory of Voice and Fire had blurred at the edges, he needed to know for sure that the calling was true, and the power was real, and the Presence remained. So he pulled out that raggedy fleece and laid it out under the stars, begging God to do all the things he could not, in this very real, very uncertain world; I’m not sure which is more remarkable, that the farmer trusted enough to ask for yet another sign, or that God stooped to touch his dirty rags, or that the Lord’s promise to His people still rings out clear through the centuries: “For I know the plans I have for you…plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” (Jeremiah 29:11)

Because this is still what we need to know most of all, and God still bends to assure us of His presence: His presence is peace, and He is good, and He is with us. “…Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20) No temporary fleece, but a blazing Presence in our hearts, the Living One who is able to control all the things we care about most and are unable to change. “For we are the temple of the living God; as God said, ‘I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.'” (2 Corinthians 6:16)  What more do we need?

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“If you need wisdom, ask our generous God, and he will give it to you. He will not rebuke you for asking. But when you ask him, be sure that your faith is in God alone. Do not waver, for a person with divided loyalty is as unsettled as a wave of the sea that is blown and tossed by the wind. Such people should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Their loyalty is divided between God and the world, and they are unstable in everything they do.” (James 1:5-8)

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“We assume favor with God means all the details of life fall simply into place. A comfortable life equals achieving insider status. But more than knowing how the future will look, God desires relationship. He knows your name and you have this assurance: ‘My presence will go with you. I’ll see the journey to the end.’

Become certain that you are loved, and life is a secure adventure into uncertainty.” (Shelly Miller)

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Faith Is an Action Verb

Choosing a word for the year has become a January practice for some of us. We have learned to approach it with much thought and prayer and anticipation, because by the end of the year it generally looks quite different than we imagined it would play out, and we have found unexpected joy in how God unfolds a desire we offer up to Him. So we take the time to etch our words in ink and metal; we hang them on our walls and around our necks to remind us; we search out His Words and ask for understanding of what He is doing in our hearts. This seeking to grow in our faith-journey is something all us women who gather each week have in common.

So it is with a sense of purpose that we begin our study through James’ letter to the early Christians– God’s purpose, that is– and the full knowledge that we were intended to be here around this table at this particular point in time. I cannot think of more practical and direct advice for Christ-followers on how to live out our faith than James’ no-nonsense big brother approach, and as I begin through this letter once again, I am filled both with anticipation, and the knowledge of how much I have yet to learn.

James wastes no time diving right into “the testing of your faith” (1:3) and drives straightforwardly through to the possibility of straying in our faith and the need to “turn a sinner from the error of his way” (5:19). From his perspective, growing in your faith is neither easy nor optional. When Jesus talks about abiding in Him, we might get the impression that it is more peaceful, like a cottage in the woods with flower vines growing up the front… something quiet and quaint and soothing. Jesus said, “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love.” (John 15:9)  It sounds like a good place to live.

But in the next verse Jesus explains what abiding means: “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in His love.” Abiding is obedience. My obedience is a thing that still stutters and halts, along with trust– sometimes quick and joyful, sometimes wrestling with old pain, sometimes bending my thoughts and choices around His mold with all my strength like red-hot metal on the forge. (But I keep following along after You and keep listening for Your voice… “just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in His love.”) I can’t think of a better place to live. But it is not quaint and soothing. It is dying.

And all this giving and dying for what? Again, Jesus spells it out for me: “…apart from me you can do nothing….Ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you….By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples….As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you….that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full….I have called you friends.” (John 15:5,7-9,11,15) If I am going to grow in love and abide in Christ it will take all my effort and all my desire– no careless living or peaceful existing– and yet ironically it will fill me up with the very things I need the most, the things I absolutely cannot live without.

It seems like too often we try to smooth over how rugged the choice to do right can actually be. Maybe we would rather dabble in Christian circles because we like the company, rather than actually “fight the good fight of the faith.” (1 Timothy 6:12) James is not afraid to confront us with the Truth: the life of faith is not for the cautious or for the coward, because love is an all-out business. “What good is it…if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them?” (James 2:14)  And I can hear Jesus’ words echoing; “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.” (John 15:13-14) Following Christ is going to take everything we have. But it is a choice we will not regret.

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“The abiding believer is the only legitimate believer.”  (John MacArthur)

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“Consider it a sheer gift, friends, when tests and challenges come at you from all sides. You know that under pressure, your faith-life is forced into the open and shows its true colors. So don’t try to get out of anything prematurely. Let it do its work so you become mature and well-developed, not deficient in any way.” (James 1:2-4)

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About the New Year

I keep hearing about resolutions and good habits and starting the New Year off right from every direction, and it all seems quite fitting in the bright first days of the year with the calendar pages still white and clear. There is an energy and ambition to the beginning of a year, and a hope that it will turn out better than last year, or at least different– or maybe make us different people in the process.

But some years look like obstacle courses right off the bat, and it’s hard to look forward to better things when big hard things are staring you in the face. To be honest there have been plenty of years that I wished were over before they began– felt run over and wrung out in the harsh light of everyday circumstances– and I know how hope for Something New can fade, can turn and wither before it even has the chance to bloom. Those blank calendars can look pretty grim with only our griefs and worries written in.

But this is the truth about new years and blank calendars, in Jesus’ own words: “…do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” (Matthew 6:34) Considering that He has just finished talking about how His Father provides for every living thing and even counts the hairs on your head, we can confidently add this to our contemplation of tomorrow’s troubles, that each day will also be filled with God’s new mercies. Here’s another truth about new years: we simply do not know what twists and turns of the path they will hold. I never could have predicted the way this past year unfolded, in its sorrows or in its  joys; and maybe I would not have chosen much of it on my own, yet if I had to go back I don’t know if I would give any of it up, either. It’s probably a good thing that the only thing in our circle of control is the immediate present, and all we are asked to do with it is to trust Jesus and to obey His words. One step at a time, one day at a time, and know that God’s resurrection power will bring healing to any troubles we find.

And therein lies yet another truth about new years, that one step leads to another, and it is in the small mundane decisions of everyday life that the course of our year will be determined, as well as the quality of our days. Because no matter whether circumstances are good or bad or indifferent, the choices we make in them are shaping us. The  Wise King warns us to take that responsibility seriously when he says “Guard your heart above all else, for it determines the course of your life.” (Proverbs 4:23) In other words, be careful what you grow in your own yard because it’s the place you have to live…and watch where you step. If we are following Jesus, we know the destination will be a good one in the end.

In case you can’t see a happy ending, remember that doesn’t mean there is no such thing. It is God who writes your ending, and you are still in the middle of the story. He is the one who is making beautiful things out of your dust, and your story isn’t finished until He says it is. Looking ahead with hope is just another way of trusting the Author that your story is still in process and that He is the One who is redeeming everything according to His plans. A sister-mentor says it like this: “Hope is not the belief that things will turn out well, but the belief that God is working through all things, no matter how things turn out.” (Ann VosKamp) Whatever else these blank calendar pages will hold, they will all be held in His loving hands, and we will be okay. He promises “When you go through deep waters, I will be with you. When you go through rivers of difficulty, you will not drown. When you walk through the fire of oppression, you will not be burned up; the flames will not consume you. For I am the Lord, your God….” (Isaiah 43:2)

So as I look at this new year and contemplate resolutions, and what one word should I pick as a focal point, the thought that keeps recurring is that Jesus’ presence is all I really need. If I can see His hand at work in each day, and be thankful, then no trouble can truly overwhelm me. If I can hear His voice of wisdom to guide me through what lies ahead, and His own power to give me strength, then I know we will make it through whatever comes, and He will continue to grow and change me. The Prophet Isaiah promises, “Your own ears will hear him. Right behind you a voice will say, ‘This is the way you should go,’ whether to the right or to the left.” (Isaiah 30:21) So yeah, that is what I want most in this New Year. Spiritual eyes to see Emmanuel, God with us, making all things new, starting with me.

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“I also pray that you will understand the incredible greatness of God’s power for us who believe Him. This is the same mighty power that raised Christ from the dead and seated Him in the place of honor at God’s right hand in the heavenly realms.” (Ephesians 1:19-20)

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“Looking for the beauty of Christ in the everyday isn’t some quaint exercise in poetry. It’s a critical exercise in not being dead — of being resurrected.” (Ann VosKamp)

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Ready for Christmas

There’s nothing that lights up brokenness like the twinkling lights of Christmas. ‘Tis the season to be jolly…with Pinterest-decked-out halls, and the family in matching pajamas on the front of your cards, and your shopping definitely finished by the third week of December. But let’s be honest, some years you just don’t have it in you to watch all the Christmas movies and bubble gaily at parties. It feels a little like maybe you’d be better off on the Island of Misfit Toys, with your chipped paint and limping spirit. And all the traditions and high expectations of the season only serve to underline how you are dragging on behind….might push you to add another present to the pile and turn up the carols, so no one suspects. Doesn’t it make you wonder where we ever got the idea that we need to achieve a certain level of glitter and gaiety before Christmas can come?

But the Prophet Isaiah is lighting up the centuries with his clarion call straight from the mouth of God: “‘Comfort, comfort my people,’ says your God. ‘Speak tenderly to Jerusalem. Tell her that her sad days are gone and her sins are pardoned.'” (Isaiah 40:1) If ever there were a holiday for the hollow and the worn-weary, it is Christmas: “For I hold you by your right hand— I, the Lord your God. And I say to you, ‘Don’t be afraid. I am here to help you.” (Isaiah 41:13) The good news comes ready-or-not to the sheep-herders and the inn-keepers, that the glory of God has come down from heaven to shine in the back alleys and the open fields of everyday life. This is the gift of Christmas, that Christ has come to be with us in whatever we are facing, and bring healing and hope. “When the poor and needy search for water and there is none, and their tongues are parched from thirst, then I, the Lord, will answer them. I…will never abandon them.” (Isaiah 41:17)

Christmas is most of all for the broken and needy, and the Light of the world shines in all His brilliance on everyone who waits patiently for His help. Isaiah records the precious promises of His salvation: “…how can you say the Lord does not see your troubles?…The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of all the earth. He never grows weak or weary. No one can measure the depths of his understanding. He gives power to the weak and strength to the powerless.” (Isaiah 40:27-29) We are held, and we are loved, and we don’t need sparkle and shine to cover us up, because the Almighty covers us. Even the Musician-King David is singing of the Messiah’s coming. “He will cover you with his feathers. He will shelter you with his wings. His faithful promises are your armor and protection.” (Psalm 91:4)

The Gospel writers highlight the prophets’ words over and over, just to prove that God’s promises have all come true in Jesus. Matthew says it as plainly as he knows how: “All of this occurred to fulfill the Lord’s message through his prophet: ‘Look! The virgin will conceive a child! She will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel, which means ‘God is with us.’” (Matthew 1:22-23) The events of Christmas were always part of God’s plan, a Light shining down through history from the beginning of time for those who know their need. John bursts into praise at the truth of what he had seen with his own eyes: “The Word gave life to everything that was created, and His life brought light to everyone. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it.” (John 1:4) This is the miracle of Christmas night, that all God’s promises come true at once, with a woman’s laboring cry and an army of angels singing: “Glory to God in highest heaven, and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased.” (Luke 2:14) To the warring and the broken, the blind and deaf, the bent and the bruised, it is the best news of all. Christ has come, and He will make us whole! The prophet Malachi adds his own joyful note to the ancient songs: “But for you who fear my name, the Sun of Righteousness will rise with healing in his wings.” (Malachi 4:2)

In this most wonderful time of the year, may our longing for goodness to prevail, for beauty, for peace… drive us only to the Light of the World who is given for us.

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“For the Lord your God is living among you. He is a mighty savior. He will take delight in you with gladness. With His love, He will calm all your fears. He will rejoice over you with joyful songs.” (Zephaniah 3:17)

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“More than presents, I long for Your presence to be apparent in all the minutes You give me. I long for Your face to shine upon me. May I define abundance as a manger, strips of cloth, and a place to lay my weary head. ” (Shelly Miller)

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When You Need an Eye Exam

This lined page lays on my desk looking back at me, and I ought to be writing on it every day, enumerating the things I am thankful for. Our small group returns to that discipline of heart and mind every Fall, to remind ourselves Whose we are, and where everything comes from. It’s like re-orienting a compass, aligning our hearts to the fixed poles of truth that can guide our steps, our thoughts, our behavior. No question about it– we live better as thankful people.

The list is filling up slowly this year, but not because of fewer gifts. My head knows that All is Gift– that is the very definition of the grace that we wear, like a label on our being, both nametag and crown for someone who walks in the footsteps of Christ. No, the gifts are many.

But seeing people you care about go through impossibly hard situations strains the eyesight…it’s just hard to see the right things, and recognize God’s handiwork. Beautiful strong women battle addiction and disease, and weary young mamas clutch onto the ends of ropes, and marriages fade and wither in the harsh winds of neglect, and families struggle to take care of the sick, and young believers struggle to stay the course….and you can look at enough loneliness and heartache and pain and injustice until it’s all you can see at the end of the day. It’s my eyesight that is weak, focusing on the things closest to me and losing sight of the bigger picture. Apparently it is a common malady, because even Paul wrote to encourage his friends: “…our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” (2 Corinthians 4:18) It’s like God’s truth is corrective lenses for the eyes of the soul. Because life here may be eye-catching and attention-grabbing, but it is also passing away, and focusing on my feet as I walk can make me impossibly myopic, in every sense of the word.

When your eyesight is failing, that’s where giving thanks becomes more an exercise of the will, just because He says so. Paul reminds us, “…give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” (1 Thessalonians 5:18) He balances it carefully on top of that tall stack of high ideals, as if the first two weren’t quite enough. “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances….” That’s what God wants from us who follow His Son, and I know there are people who scoff at the seeming-impossible, but the Spirit who makes all things possible is alive and well in me, and He says this is what real life looks like. It seems clear that when I fix my eyes on Him and what He is doing, both joy and thankfulness will abound in His company.

So I reach out my mind to choose what He says over what I see; I reach out my words to tell Him what hurts and that I trust Him to take care of it in the best way; I reach out my heart to say Thank You, Thank You for all the undeserved blessings of this day. And this is the slowly unfolding miracle, that gratitude rises anew.

 

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“I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, and his incomparably great power for us who believe.” (Ephesians 1:18-19)

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“What you think you can’t handle — might actually be God handing you a gift.  And I think of everything I have chafed against and railed about and howled to the heavens and who am I to know what is best or not — but when you bow and surrender to the sovereignty of God then you are in the posture to receive all as a gift.” (Ann VosKamp)

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Polite Lepers and the Power of Choosing Happiness

One of my favorite Bible stories in Sunday School when I was a child was the ten lepers who call out to Jesus to have mercy on them; He tells them to go to the Temple to show the priests they were healed and off they run, eager to make the proper sacrifices so that they could rejoin their families and get their lives back. But one of them turns around and runs back to Jesus to say thank you. I can still remember that line of men strung out across the flannelgraph board, their colorful robes flapping around their legs, and that one figure kneeling at the feet of Jesus, his hands and face turned upwards in worship. The story definitely has a strong visual appeal, and it probably resonates with children everywhere who are being taught polite manners: even Jesus thinks it is important that people say thank you!

Now that I am older, other aspects of the story intrigue me though, like the fact that all were healed, regardless of whether they said thanks or not. God’s mercy was lavish and free…no strings attached. And the fact that the man who came back was a foreigner is striking, because it is probably the real reason for his gratitude. The Jews were used to being God’s special people, and it made sense to them, both that God would heal them and that the Temple priest was the one who would declare them clean. The Samaritan though, was fully aware of his own unworthiness to be touched by God, and knew that he was not welcome to offer his gifts of thankfulness in the Temple. He saw clearly that the healing was at Jesus’ command, and returned to give thanks where it was due; it was his faith that Jesus was commending. All ten were healed of their skin condition, but one came back to kneel at Jesus’ feet, and had his heart healed as well. Obviously, the lesson for us is much larger than having nice manners.

I used to have this crazy poster on my fridge that I printed out, mostly because I needed to think about the words every day, in order to wrap my brain around them: “Everyone gets to decide how happy they want to be…because everyone gets to decide how grateful they are willing to be.” (Ann VosKamp)”

Everyone gets to decide how happy they want to be? Even the lepers and the lonely?…. all the ones that get stuck in situations beyond their control? And what if there is no family to run home to, and the healing doesn’t come? That’s the hard ceiling on free will, finding out that in so many ways you are not actually free, and have no choices in the matter. And who in this life gets to decide on a quantity of happiness, as if they were window shopping in a mall? Isn’t everyone allotted some random measure of happiness in this life, and some people are just more blessed than others? There is an inequity of circumstances that we all have learned to put up with, ever since we were toddlers and discovered the painful truth that we can’t always have what someone else has. And right about that same time we laid the responsibility of our happiness on the shoulders of circumstance, let it roll on the unpredictable winds of fortune. I see how we often live on that thin knife-edge– balanced between hope that things will go our way, and fear that everything will crash down around our ears; can see how we lean toward worry or toward control, trying to manage it all. And some of us just give up on the trying, and do whatever we can to pretend everything is going to work out fine. The world we live in makes no sense of the first part of that sentence.

But the truth of the second part skewers through the uncertainty of that first bit, anchoring it firmly. “Everyone gets to decide how happy they want to be… because everyone gets to decide how grateful they are willing to be.” (Ann VosKamp) And I know this spiritual sister is speaking truth, even though my heart still struggles at times to put it into practice. Because gratitude is precisely what we are free to choose– or not– in response to the circumstances we are given, and the way we respond shows what is in our hearts toward the Giver.

In his letters to the early churches, Paul writes it over and over again, rings out the insistent call: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.” (Philippians 4:4) He hands out this command boldly, as the standard for believers, regardless of their circumstances. And given the circumstances of his own life, we can surmise that Paul was no rosy idealist about life; he had no illusions about how hard it could be to hold onto hope or contentment or joy. His answer to the hurting, to the lonely, to the failing and the fallen is the same: Rejoice in the One who loves you and will never leave you.

Just before the story of the lepers, Jesus’ followers ask Him how to increase their faith. I wonder if the story of the thankful man surprised them at all. The connection between faith and thanksgiving is probably not one that we would make on our own, yet it runs over and over through the Scriptures: thankfulness is an act of obedience and faith, the humble offering of a heart that recognizes its Maker and Healer. And it is thankfulness that enables us to persevere in faith through whatever comes. This Savior who answers our cries for mercy is the answer to all the hurts of this world, and because of His presence we can always rejoice, can always give thanks, no matter how hard our faith is tested.

But it’s a choice and we have to be willing to submit to what He has given this day, open our hands for what He supplies and be content there. Paul’s words stand firm: “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.” (2 Corinthians 4:8-9) The only certainty in this world is suffering; all else is Grace, and undeserved.

So maybe happiness is really up to me and I do get to decide, because while the circumstances are not in my control, my response to them is, and gratitude is always the best option. Choose to see Grace? Be willing to acknowledge the Giver’s goodness and provision in the midst of circumstances, and find happiness in His presence? I get to decide.

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“Whatever happens to me each day is my daily bread, provided I do not refuse to take it from Thy hand and to feed upon it.” (Francois de la Mothe Fenelon)

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“Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is….be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Ephesians 5:15-17, 19-20)

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When Blind Men See

We are all just beggars in a way, aren’t we? I mean, on the outside no one would know, because we look pretty much like everyone else. But on the inside, most of us are looking for something, holding up our cupped hands to those who pass by. Asking for love; asking for a listening ear; longing for security, for hope; begging for meaning and worth, for relationship, for belonging. Some days you feel more satisfied, depending on what you receive. Sometimes you just feel wrung out, impoverished, like the thin ribs of your spirit would be poking through your dirty rags if anyone actually had the eyes to see inside. And it shapes you, having to beg for a life. Pushes you into thinking and acting in ways you would rather not… but a woman has to survive in this world somehow.

And we look at the man-born-blind sitting along the road and feel sorry for him: marked by his disease, by his shame, cut off from others by his disability. They don’t even see him as a person any more. He is a fixture in the landscape, growing older and shabbier, and less noticed as the years go by. Maybe a warning to naughty children about the possible consequences of their behavior, and occasionally the subject of theological discussion as to whose guilt put him there– and somehow no one ever questions the assumption that he deserves his situation. But what about us? Were we also born to sit in the dirt and beg for our lives? Is that all we are?…all we deserve? Maybe the only difference between us and him is that the marks of his need were obvious and out in the open.  And maybe right there is the secret fear that fuels our desire to be pretty and polished, to win enough trophies to hide our neediness….we need to prove that we don’t deserve to be cast aside.

But when Jesus looks at the blind beggar, He doesn’t see hopeless or helpless. He doesn’t measure the man’s worth by his condition at all. Jesus tells his followers plainly, “This happened so that  the works of God might be displayed in him.” (John 9:3) Jesus looks at the forgotten man, and He sees past the unseeing eyes, right through to the core of who he is. Jesus sees a man created from the dust of this earth, formed by God’s creative power in his mother’s womb; Jesus sees potential, and opportunity for God to do something wonderful; Jesus touches those disease-damaged eyes with His own flesh, and tells the man simply to wash it all away, leave it behind and become someone new. He doesn’t need to beg any more.

Years later, a man named Paul experienced that power himself, how God can look at a man (who barely even knows he is a beggar on the inside), and open his eyes, give him a new life. Paul declared with confidence that “God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. (1 Corinthians 1:27) Because when Jesus opens your eyes to see His face, that shapes a person too. Turns a murderer into a preacher, and a scholar into a pioneer missionary. Takes a man who thought he was “God’s gift” to the world and renames him “small, humble”— the kind of guy who could say sincerely, “Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.” (2 Corinthians 12:9) When you have Jesus, you can stop living hungry on scraps, because He calls you friend and brother, calls you to follow Him.

So this particular beggar, who has never done a thing with his life except sit useless and beg for scraps of other people’s lives, finds unexpected reserves of confidence to stand up to the public controversy that swirls around his healing– can even shame a court of educated religious men with his eloquence: “Now that is remarkable! You don’t know where he comes from, yet he opened my eyes….If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” (John 9:30, 33) Ironic, isn’t it, that a man who never saw anything before can look at Jesus and see the Messiah, come to heal us all from our sin, while everyone else is so busy looking at what they can get on their own. Beggars, all of them.

And I wonder if that beggar-born-blind did have one thing going for him: at least he could admit what he did for a living– knew that he was damaged and needed a fix. We should all be so brave. That’s all he needed to have, really. Jesus took care of the rest.

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“Tell everyone who is discouraged, ‘Be strong and don’t be afraid! God is coming to your rescue….’ The blind will be able to see, and the deaf will hear. The lame will leap and dance, and those who cannot speak will shout for joy. Streams of water will flow through the desert; the burning sand will become a lake, and dry land will be filled with springs.” (Isaiah 35:4-7)

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“The walls you’re building to keep the hurt out, are the same walls that keep the healing from getting in.” (Ann VosKamp)

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Simply Trusting

For all those things that are outside our circle of influence, let there be this word of encouragement today, that we can trust the One who holds everything in His hands. “The God Who lives forever is the Lord, the One Who made the ends of the earth. He will not become weak or tired. His understanding is too great for us to begin to know.” (Isaiah 40:28)

 He’s got this. You can rest in His love, “For the Lord your God is living among you. He is a mighty Savior. He will take delight in you with gladness. With His love, He will calm all your fears. He will rejoice over you with joyful songs.” (Zephaniah 3:17) Be still, and listen to Him singing.

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“If I believe in God, in a Being who made me, and fashioned me, and knows my wants and capacities and necessities, because He gave them to me, and who is perfectly good and loving, righteous, and perfectly wise and powerful– whatever my circumstances inward or outward may be, however thick the darkness which encompasses me– I yet can trust, yea, be assured, that all will be well, that He can draw light out of darkness, and make crooked things straight.” (Thomas Erskine)

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“And I will give you treasures hidden in the darkness–secret riches. I will do this so you may know that I am the LORD, the God of Israel, the One who calls you by name.” (Isaiah 45:3)

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What Elephant?

There’s a fundamental truth in the center of everything. It’s amazing how we can build a whole life blatantly ignoring the bulk of it– and yet we will all run up against it like a brick wall, at some point. The simple fact is that there are a great many things on this earth that we cannot control.

And of course we know that in our heads, and right away we think of the things we wish we could fix in our lives, past and present.  We might even list any number of large disastrous events that we would  collectively entitle “acts of God.” Of course, the implication is that these things ought to have been prevented altogether (and we would certainly have done so if we were in charge)…but no one stepped up, and at least we know Who is to blame. So much hurt in this big world.

So we spend enormous amounts of energy on controlling everything we can, and a great many things we can’t, but wish we could. Because maybe it’s just a matter of finding the right cure, or the right balance, or the right person to help. We can call it hope and strength and courage and determination– all the things we admire in a human being– and surely one of these days, if we work hard enough together, we will succeed where others have failed. Being proactive in the Everyday makes me feel stronger, more confident, like I am making a difference in all the chaos; like I  am carving out a safe place for myself and my family;  As long as the people I care about are happy and things are running smoothly at home and work and school, it seems proof positive that what I am doing is working, right?

I wonder more and more if all our trying isn’t just a smokescreen of capability, tangling a nest of self-deception and self-distraction until we can forget about that fundamental monstrosity in our midst. Because controlling the world is a mighty big task, and just because you’ve managed to decorate it nicely, doesn’t mean the elephant in the room has disappeared…. nor does it mean you are free of it.  During the day maybe you can actually come to believe that you are holding it all together, but in the middle of the night, when it’s just you in the dark?….Well, we all know the issues that keep us heart-poundingly awake at night.

Sometimes the terrible things in life turn out to be unexpected gifts; they can become the lenses on that enormous reality of impotence, like opening your eyes to what has been there all along. When the things you dread come crashing in hard and fast, and all you can do is cry out for help, you are finally in a place to learn the most important truth of all.

Because the truth is, no matter how intensely I feel about things, it doesn’t give me any more actual ability to control them. There are certain things God has given me to do, and a great many He has not put within my circle of influence, and that is okay. Because the opposite of control isn’t chaos. The opposite of control is trust. And just because you feel like circumstances are out of control doesn’t mean they are. I really wish I could hear Jesus’ tone of voice when He says “Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life? Since you cannot do this very little thing, why do you worry about the rest?” (Luke 12:25) When I stop trying to fix everything, and start trusting the One whose job it is, it’s amazing how the impossible situations begin shrinking next to the infinite weight of glory that is His presence; how knots in relationships untangle in the light of His truth; how bent bodies and broken hearts find rest and healing in His touch.

It is remarkably freeing to name the elephant in the room…to see it there and admit that there are relatively few things in this world over which I have influence, and that is just fine with me. I have enough to keep me busy just managing my own internal affairs.

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“Why do you say…’My way is hidden from the Lord; my cause is disregarded by my God’? Do you not know? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and His understanding no one can fathom. (Isaiah 40:27-28)

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“There are always arms under you carrying you, there are always hands carved with your name holding yours, there is always a waiting embrace Who is your safe place. You will never be abandoned — because He will never abandon you, Love will never abandon you, Hope will never abandon you, Grace will never abandon you.” (Ann VosKamp)

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