Looking for Something to Wear

Women deciding what to wear seems to be both humorous and irritating to just about everyone, including ourselves. It’s just that our closets are so much more complex than a man’s– and maybe that’s a reflection of our multi-faceted life in this world. Or perhaps an indication of some unstable identity issues, but it definitely makes for a lengthy decision process on a daily basis. Maybe that’s why the Church-Planter’s metaphor for how to live resonates so well with us.

Paul may have been a man, but he understands how important the right clothes are to a situation, and how serious is that early-morning consideration into picking clothes for the day. Because what you wear shows people who you are on the inside. Clothing show how you feel about yourself, what you think about life, and the direction you are heading– just ask any girl over the age of twelve. But Paul pushes right past our vanity and pride concerning all those outside issues, and challenges us to look at our inside self the way God does: “Since God chose you to be the holy people He loves, you must clothe yourselves with tenderhearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience.” (Colossians 3:12) Right there in the space of a sentence is an entire manual on what the well-dressed follower of Jesus should be wearing this season.

The word picture works because we do this every day: we peel off the dirty clothes and toss them in the laundry basket before we can get cleaned up and put on fresh clothes. We get laundry. We’ve done mountains of it every week; it’s one of those household chores that repeats endlessly, but no one questions its necessity. And Paul says it’s like that for us, exchanging the old life for a new one: “for you have stripped off your old sinful nature and all its wicked deeds.”  (Colossians 3:9) I need to throw away the angry words that spill out easily, and choose gentleness and mercy; I need to turn away from deceiving others with my own best interests in mind, and choose integrity instead, even when it costs me; I need to let go of this society’s standards of beauty and success and pursue the peaceful contented spirit that God delights in; I need to throw away self-sufficient independence, and choose childlike trust. Choose forgiveness. Choose surrender. Choose joy. These are repetitive, daily kinds of choices that are quite necessary, and should be part of normal life for any Christ-follower.

And it is as far away from a list of rules as you can get. It’s an appeal to common sense and to gratitude, a matter of showing on the outside what we believe on the inside, our love for the Savior shining out on our faces and in our behavior. So that when people look at us they can see the beautiful reality of our regeneration: “For you died to this life, and your real life is hidden with Christ in God.” ( Colossians 3:3)

To some extent, this process of constant everyday renewal comes naturally from the beautiful presence of Christ living in us– His resurrection power at work in us and our spirits awakened to respond to Him. Paul assures his readers: “And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” (2 Corinthians 3:18) But in very real ways, how I am clothed to go out into my day is up to me, too. Paul’s written instructions to the early believers are given with every expectation that they will listen and obey. The responsibility is on me to choose, even while the power to accomplish it comes from the Holy Spirit. And the more I listen to Him and let Him lead me on the inside, the more my life changes on the outside. Paul says confidently to his readers “Put on your new nature, and be renewed as you learn to know your Creator and become like Him.” (Colossians 3:10)

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“Work hard to show the results of your salvation, obeying God with deep reverence and fear. For God is working in you, giving you the desire and the power to do what pleases him. Do everything without complaining and arguing, so that no one can criticize you. Live clean, innocent lives as children of God, shining like bright lights in a world full of crooked and perverse people.” (Philippians 2:12-15)

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“I asked her what was so scary about unmerited free grace? She replied something like this: “If I was saved by my good works — then there would be a limit to what God could ask of me or put me through. I would be like a taxpayer with rights. I would have done my duty and now I would deserve a certain quality of life. But if it is really true that I am a sinner saved by sheer grace — at God’s infinite cost — then there’s nothing he cannot ask of me.”
(Timothy Keller, The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith)

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When You’re Feeling Stuck

It’s definitely a day for the Chicago blues and a wailing guitar, with the snow coming down, and waiting for family to come home, and pies laid out on the kitchen table. After all these years, the prayers come easily in the kitchen: stirring over the stove, and checking the timer, and washing up the dishes yet again, mixing and measuring out…these daily movements have become the choreography of my prayer life. The medieval Carmelite monk, Brother Lawrence, had it right when he said “We might accustom ourselves to a continual conversation with Him with freedom and in simplicity. We need only to recognize God intimately present with us and address ourselves to Him every moment. We need to beg His assistance for knowing His will in things doubtful and for rightly performing those which we plainly see He requires of us, offering them to Him before we do them, and giving Him thanks when we have completed them.” (The Practice of the Presence of God)

So I work in my kitchen and offer it up to Him, and I pray for Him to work in all the situations that need His help, ask yet again for Him to do the things that would surely be best for everyone, and suddenly it occurs to me that I only get impatient with waiting because I want to be able to do something to fix this. I wonder how many times my prayers are no more than a begging for Him to move this obstacle or open that door, so I can get to work, an expression of frustration in my own helplessness. With that personal observation under the spotlight, it’s easier to see why He often does something entirely different, way out of my reach, so that the glory is all His own. Immediately Paul’s words from his letter to the Ephesians come to mind, “And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God.” We are used to hearing that in reference to salvation (which of course is what Paul is talking about) but there is a wry fact of life there too, that we would usually so much rather do things on our own and feel good about it. And more than a hint of feeling we know what is best, as well.

But I see how self-sufficiency sets itself against trusting, and how our stress-filled figuring-it-out could be laid to rest in the knowledge of the Father’s love. I can wait quietly, in total assurance that whatever God is doing will show itself to be very much bigger and way better than anything I could work out. I can be content to trade the stress and hurry of my efforts for the promise that all will be well for the people I love, because the Giver loves to pour out undeserved favor for the sake of His glory. It’s what He does best. In the space of waiting that often seems empty and unproductive, maybe there is an unseen wind of earth-shaking power that I don’t know about yet. Just ask the ancient prophets watching their people being hauled away into slavery by the conquering Babylonian armies, who are laying waste to the Promised Land. Yet during that time, Jeremiah could claim “The Lord is good to those whose hope is in Him, to the one who seeks Him; it is good to wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord.” (Lamentations 3:25-26) And Isaiah could write some of the most beautiful and comforting words the world has ever heard: “Why do you complain..? Why do you say, Israel, ‘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….those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength.” (Isaiah 40:27-28, 31) Wait, O Israel, because God is at work, and the silence will not last forever…only until the Savior is born, “And the glory of the LORD will be revealed, and all people will see it together.” (Isaiah 40:5)

Some things God does give me to work out, with His strength to help, and this too is a gift. As Brother Lawrence reminds, the key is knowing what is mine to do and not fretting about the rest of it. There is a simplicity in that kind of trust that only comes through the habit of constant inner conversation with God. The humble monk in the kitchen was living out what Paul explains simply and practically in his Ephesians letter: “Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand.” (Ephesians 4:6-7) Work on the things that are in your circle of influence; wait for God to take care of the things that are not; and pray about all of it, trusting Him to show you which is which. I need the reminder that this is how to live in the presence of God; my heart turns, and the prayers change, deepen here, looking for what He is doing in the waiting spaces, listening for the whispers of His Spirit. And the world waits in the stillness, waits to see His glory.

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 “I remain confident of this: I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Wait for the Lord; be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord.” (Psalm 27:14)

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“God’s putting together all the pieces of the puzzle and He’ll fill what’s still missing with His peace.” (Ann VosKamp)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Just As I Am, I Come

I’ve been reading old soldiers of the faith, these last few weeks, and feeling both encouraged and humbled by their strength. It is safe to say that a person’s grasp of grace is directly proportional to his sense of how far he has fallen and his utter desperate need for forgiveness. We have somehow lost both grace and desperation, in the modern swell of psychological Self-boosting.

But there’s a difference between hating your sin-disease and hating yourself. There’s a difference between feeling shame and feeling worthless because of it (though the Enemy of your soul will rush you right from one to the other without a second thought). It’s really not that we need to find a way to feel better about ourselves. It’s that we need to pull off the masks and see ourselves clearly. We are genetically flawed– at the mercy of our bent and broken natures. We are born into the middle of this crazy rebellion against the King and are running headlong toward our own destruction, like so many larger-than-life lemmings. And trying to patch up the effects of shame and guilt by building self-worth on our own is as appallingly futile as treating a flesh-eating virus with a good diet and exercise. But maybe that’s part of the problem, that we have lived so long with this malady that we have accepted it as a normal part of life, just one more everyday hazard to cope with the best way you can, until you run out of time.

Thing is, when you can see yourself clearly, flawed as you are, the answer is similarly obvious… as plain as that Cross on the hill. The Apostle Paul knew just what his sin problem was, doesn’t hesitate to tell us “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. (Romans 3:11) And he waxes eloquent about the Grace that rescued him and gave him a new start– practically sings it, in words that can barely contain the Mystery: “So we praise God for the glorious grace he has poured out on us…. He is so rich in kindness and grace that he purchased our freedom with the blood of his Son and forgave our sins. He has showered his kindness on us…” (Ephesians 1:6-8a) Far from making Paul miserable, recognizing the depths of his personal darkness gave him a profound appreciation for the gift of forgiveness. Maybe he was onto something, along with these other saints long-gone: don’t bother patching up the soul, because “all our righteous acts are like filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6) anyway. Just stop running ragged and making do on your own; dive into endless grace for a complete re-creation, and revel in the simple freedom of starting over.

And the old words still ring true to the soul:
“Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to the cross I cling;
Naked, come to thee for dress;
Helpless, look to thee for grace;
Foul, I to the fountain fly;
Wash me, Savior, or I die….
Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in thee.”
(Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me, Augustus M. Toplady)

There is a Savior who takes me just as I am, and a love that defies all explanation or measurement, and this is the source of true worth and a healthy self-image. I don’t really see myself clearly until I can see a forgiven sinner made whole, “the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Ephesians 2:9) There’s joy here, in coming just as you are.

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“You’re more than your hands do. You’re more than your hands have. You’re more than how other hands measure you. You are what is written on God’s Hands: Safe. Held. His. Beloved.” (Ann VosKamp)

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“And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ…” (Ephesians 3:17-18)

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You Make Beautiful Things

The hills are turning every shade of fire this weekend, and when I think about what it really means for the trees, my spirit offers up hushed that only God could make the dying beautiful. With Autumn’s declaration splashed lavish across the hillsides, two young people celebrate how He brought them out of broken places to start a new life together….a weary joyful saint leaves behind a chrysalis and steps transformed into immortality….a whole family gives thanks for the awakening miracle of love in a child’s wounded heart….the Holy Wind blowing life into all these dry bones. And I see how we are all only dust, lit up with Your glory. We are the clay in Your potter’s hands from the first day till the last, held fast and loved beyond measure. The colors of autumn paint us their yearly reminder that everything fades but what is in You: all this dust turning to dust, and all of us becoming beautiful in the light of Your grace, empty hands held up toward the sky.

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“As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust. The life of mortals is like grass, they flourish like a flower of the field; the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more. But from everlasting to everlasting the Lord’s love is with those who fear him, and his righteousness with their children’s children…” (Psalm 103:13-17)

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“Do not be thinking of how little you have to bring to God, but of how much he wants to give you. Just place yourself before, and look up into, His face; think of His love, His wonderful, tender, pitying love. Just tell Him how sinful and cold and dark it all is: it is the Father’s loving heart that will give light and warmth to yours.” (Andrew Murray)

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Grace So Glorious

We could get quite well-distracted right here in the beginning of Ephesians, about what it means to be chosen and just how does that work anyway, because don’t we all want to be accepted and valued? We still remember that time-standing-still waiting, while the team captains picked for dodge-ball. We are a long way from our beginnings, but sometimes on the inside we are still just five year old girls on the playground, with the fierce need to belong. So we read gladly what Paul says here, that “…He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before Him. In love He predestined us for adoption…” (Ephesians 1:4-5) Being singled out for honor, seen as special and loved in someone else’s eyes, knowing that we are wanted and admired– these are building blocks of a girl’s identity. 

And it is way too easy to keep following along those lines of human thinking, because we know how this works: when one is chosen, someone else is left out, and feelings are hurt, hopes crushed. So who is part of the in-crowd and who doesn’t belong, in Paul’s scenario? We’ve spent years learning to navigate the precarious social structure of the school-yard, to find a niche where we belong, and why would this group of people be any different?  Our own fear of being left out and our bent toward control could grab onto these first verses and wrestle with them endlessly.

But the point Paul is making is not about who was chosen, or who was not (so that we would scurry around trying to make sure we were on the inside rather than the left-outside). Nor is Paul’s point about when we were chosen (so we could figure out how much of a say we have in the matter). His point is so much more simple and so very much larger than any of that…the kind of realization that hitches your breath and fills your heart up. He is just pointing out the fact that we are chosen, that God loves us and wants us to be His own, and that means everything.

See the Jews were from the beginning God’s special people. Before any of them were born, He told Abraham that they were coming, that they would be special because He had chosen to bless them, that they would be His own in front of all the other nations on the planet, and that they would know Him personally. Every Jew came into this world knowing he was one of the in-crowd: accepted and loved and singled out for honor in the eyes of the only One who really mattered. The most anyone else could hope for was to hang around at the edge of the crowd, if you didn’t mind being a tag-along, and catching some of the reflected glory. Everyone knows that scenario…it’s Playground Politics 101.

And now Paul is telling some long-held heavenly secret to Gentiles, shouting out loud for anyone who has ears to hear, that they also”…were chosen to be God’s people, because from the very beginning God had decided this in keeping with His plan. And He is the One who makes everything agree with what He decides and wants.” (Ephesians 1:11)  Everything that was created, all the people on earth who respond in faith, joined together in Christ as if the old labels didn’t even matter. We too were chosen to be blessed before we were born, brought up front to wear His name in front of everyone, able to know Him as a loving Father. We too get to belong in the center of God’s undivided attention. Best of all, it is what God had intended all along.

For us modern girls it’s easy to shrug off maybe, but to the believers along the coast of Asia Minor it was the essence of the Good News and a social/spiritual revolution: in Christ, anyone can belong to God. Because of Him all the social barriers marking who was on the inside and who was on the outside, who was worth something and who was not, came falling down. Anyone who believes in His Son has access to God’s rich blessings of grace, becomes a child of the King. Paul assures us that his big news is true: “This was what God wanted, and he planned to do it through Christ….when the right time came, that all things in heaven and on earth would be joined together in Christ as the head.” (Ephesians 1:9-10)

Today the mystery of glorious grace is no less amazing, if we have ears to hear it and don’t get sidetracked into playground squabbles over who came first and who is in charge. We are loved. We are chosen to be the recipients of God’s blessings, further evidence of His grace because of the cross. This is the basis of our identity and value in this world. Paul sings it out: “That is why since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all God’s people, I have not stopped giving thanks to God for you.” (Ephesians 1:15)

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“Just remember there’s a Savior,
And you are worth enough–
He gave His life for you.
I’m accepted… accepted.
I’m accepted by the One who matters most”

(DeGarmo and Key)

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“For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’” (Romans 10:12-13)

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Seasons of Change

Almost a month has slipped by here, with me wordlessly ruminating on things past and what is ahead, and how we all are growing. It is remarkable how quickly great change can come to our hearts, when we are truly ready to listen and hungry for something more. Who knows what the tipping point will be? When do the walls become doors and everything suddenly make sense? How do we open the windows and allow the winds of change to blow through our lives? And it reminds me of the story Jesus told: “…other seeds fell on fertile soil, and they sprouted, grew, and produced a crop that was thirty, sixty, and even a hundred times as much as had been planted!…Anyone with ears to hear should listen and understand.” (Mark 4:8-9) Maybe only the Farmer knows when the soil is fertile, and when ears are ready to understand His Truth– just how much digging up and plowing-through it takes, to make something grow. His patience is endless.

And too, perhaps all the years of labor pains and wrestling on another’s behalf are not as unproductive as they appear sometimes. Perhaps the Holy Wind has been stirring within, preparing the soil to yield abundance, after all. Who are we to judge what is in another person’s heart, or when the harvest should come, or even what He is accomplishing in our own hearts during the long waiting?

So here we are already mid-Fall, at the start of new small groups and new books, and we come with ever-new hearts around the table to learn together. We are not the same as we were even a year ago: older certainly, but there’s a hunger in the room…a warmth of connected-ness between us women whose hearts are open and whose ears are listening. We are excited for new growth. Someone pointed out the other night that the overarching Plan is God’s, but we get to choose how we respond– what our lives will produce– and people are watching and responding themselves. It makes me think again of soil plowed up and receptive to the seeds He is planting, and how mysterious are the methods of the Holy Breath of God. There is the small stir of a seed’s awakening, and there is the slow steady growth of a well-cultivated soul, and there is the sudden abundance of harvest, but it is all the Farmer’s work “…to the praise of His glorious grace, which He has freely given us.” (Ephesians 1:6)

Dear Father, help us to keep saying yes to You in every little thing; to keep the eyes of our souls turned toward you; and our ears open for Your voice, however it may come. May we be patient with what You are growing in us, and persevere in praying for those we love; may Your grace and lovingkindness bring the harvest.

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“He turned the desert into pools of water and the parched ground into flowing springs; there he brought the hungry to live….” (Psalm 107:35-36)

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“Trust Him now for everything, and see if He does not do for you exceeding abundantly above all that you could ever have asked or thought, not according to your power or capacity, but according to His own mighty power, that will work in you all the good pleasure of His most blessed will. You find no difficulty in trusting the Lord with the management of the universe and all the outward creation, and can your case be any more complex or difficult than these, that you need to be anxious or troubled about His management of it?” (Hannah Whitall Smith)

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