Not Wasted At All

Sometimes I think we are looking at all the wrong things when we read the story Jesus told about the two brothers and their father. Even the title is indicative of our slant– the name prodigal son is wasted on the younger brother, because although he certainly was all about wasting his inheritance, that is hardly the point of the story. I mean, as long as we go on seeing him only as disrespectful and irresponsible we can shake our heads and agree that it is hard to forgive people who make a mess of everyone’s lives and come back looking for grace. Call the older brother offended (as we would certainly be at our sibling’s behavior)…even call him unforgiving or jealous; better yet, point out that the father best deserves the name prodigal as he pours out his love and grace– wastes it without regard for justice on the one who has wronged him. But let the boy’s situation hit our hearts squarely in all its raw need: “So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.” (Luke 15:15-16)

The younger brother is better understood in the context of the other two stories Jesus told to the crowds. His is the third– the lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost son– and in the first two we are hearing it from the perspective of those who have lost something of value, so it is right when we come to the third to see the grief of the Father over everything that has been destroyed by his son’s bad choices. After all, these are parables, simple memorable stories intended to teach a moral lesson to those who listen. But this time we get a window into what it is like to be the one lost. And we see a boy who is desperate, alone, hear how broken is his pride and how ready to admit that he needs his father’s love and forgiveness, even if he doesn’t deserve it. If we are going to understand forgiveness, we need to see things from the younger son’s perspective, and feel his pain when he cries out, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son…” (Luke 15:18-19)

Because I suspect that you can’t really understand forgiving someone else until you know what it means to long for forgiveness yourself, to hunger and thirst for that righteousness that wipes away shame and guilt…until you can weep with King David: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions.” (Psalm 51:1) Any concept you have of forgiveness is likely to be more intellectual (and pretty anemic) until you have seen the blood on your own hands, and faced the dark closets in your own soul, prostrated yourself before God: “Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.” (Psalm 51:7) You can be sure that David was not reciting any formula or just doing what was expected of him when he pleaded “Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones You have crushed rejoice. Hide Your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquity.” (Psalm 51:8-9) on the deathbed of his infant son. Only such a gifted musician could have written melody for the agony of a father bearing the guilt of his son’s death. And only those who have received grace know its life-giving power to people lost in the dark.

The parable of the two brothers and their father is above all a story to teach God’s prodigal grace. And although we might be tempted to look at the two brother’s achievements and name one more deserving than the other, the Father’s love and grace pours out on both in extravagantly, unhindered by our measurements and unconcerned by our ideas of fairness. Grace isn’t grace unless it is undeserved, and grace is never wasted– just ask anyone who knows their need. “Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” (Hebrews 4:16)

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“You, God, are my God, earnestly I seek You; I thirst for You, my whole being longs for You, in a dry and parched land where there is no water. I have seen You in the sanctuary and beheld Your power and Your glory. Because Your love is better than life, my lips will glorify You.” (Psalm 63:1-3)

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“There’s a place where sin and shame
Are powerless;
Where my heart has peace with God
And forgiveness;
Where all the love I’ve ever found
Comes like a flood,
Comes flowing down.
At the cross, at the cross,
I surrender my life–
I’m in awe of You…”
(At The Cross, Chris Tomlin)

 

 

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A Beautiful and Dangerous Good

This week I heard a worship leader tell his story, how Jesus came and found him when he was wandering lost, and picked him up and carried him safe Home, because He is good like that. And some stranger walked up to us out of the blue yesterday and shared how he thought he was doing okay in life until God knocked it all down around his ears, and in the rubble he found faith that could carry him. He told us his thanks to a good God for the ruin that brought about his restoration.

And I see how the same Goodness that gathers up the broken and the desperate also roars in the storm, and still we are loved and we are held. The prophet Isaiah wrote down God’s promise to us: “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. For I am the Lord your God…” (Isaiah 43:2-3a) And there is this wild, fierce Love that pursues, that goes to any lengths to obtain our hearts; an inexorable Goodness that will not be satisfied with our comfort or our sincerity, but is willing to see everything on earth shaken for the sake of what will last.

It underscores to me that we don’t always know whether something is good or bad for us until we’ve lived through it and gained the wisdom that comes from time and perspective. It makes me pause on that reaction to call things good or bad because of how I feel about them. I want the Good Shepherd to come find me when I am lost– I am quick to justify the effort spent, the blood spilled– because the result is my rescue. But shouldn’t I also be willing to celebrate when the Good Gardener cuts back the branches– smashes all these pretty golden idols– so that I can become who He wants me to be? I find my faith is still so small and selfish; it wants what is good for me and only if it is not too difficult.

Jesus said you can recognize Goodness when you see it, because it spends itself for the sake of others: “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” (John 10:11) This is the axis of our faith, that Love and Goodness has been poured out for us in such unthinkable abundance that there is truly nothing that we need to fear or grasp for, beyond Himself….nothing that can stand against us in all heaven and earth. Or as Paul told the early Believers, “He who did not spare His own Son, but gave Him up for us all—how will He not also, along with Him, graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:32) All our faith revolves around the Cross and the earth-shattering event of what Jesus accomplished for us there. So maybe it shouldn’t surprise us that the good and the hard of life look different now.

If it is true that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him,” (Romans 8:28) then why should I lose my wits when the things of earth are shaken? Let me rather hold onto Truth and open eyes of faith to see His hand at work everywhere, and no end to His Goodness. If “I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord,”  then let me stand here in this Love that defies reason, and wait to see what He will do for me in whatever comes. If “Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us” (Romans 8:34), then I can trust that I have all I need to live well on this earth.

I feel like a child holding a kaleidoscope up to the Light, and I could spend my whole life gazing at the way He moves. The Musician-King said it best: “One thing I ask from the Lord, this only do I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze on the beauty of the Lord and to seek Him in his temple.” (Psalm 27:4)

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 “Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity..” (1 Corinthians 13:12)

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“He is jealous for me,
Loves like a hurricane–
I am a tree,
Bending beneath
The weight of His wind and mercy.
When all of a sudden
I am unaware of these
Afflictions eclipsed by glory,
And I realize how beautiful You are,
And how great Your affections are for me.
Oh how he loves us so…”
(How He Loves, John Mark McMillan)

 

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The Safest Place

On days when you are trying to be brave, holding onto faith for dear life, but there’s this frantic whisper in the back of your head that circumstances are more than you can handle right now, and what in the world does a person have to do to catch a break in this tempest, let this truth sink in deep: Jesus is standing beside His Father in Heaven paying attention to everything that concerns you. He is holding you securely in His strong arms, and even before you reach out to Him, He is praying for you.

The writer of Hebrews wants to make sure we understand the richness of our inheritance in Christ, and all the ways He fulfills the promises of God. The Law was God’s gift to Israel as His chosen people; but Jesus is the Father’s precious gift to all who believe– God giving Himself to us forever. “…He is able to save completely those who come to God through Him, because He always lives to intercede for them.” (Hebrews 7:25) 

Rest in this, that you are His own, and He is acting on your behalf. If you make your spirit comfortably at home in this truth, you will find all that you need for this day.

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“Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.  I will say of the Lord, “He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.”  (Psalm 91:1-2)

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Jesus lives to endlessly, relentlessly and flawlessly pray for you….

Jesus is praying for your holiness because He knows holiness is your ultimate happiness….Jesus is praying that you’ll be brave when you’re about to break, that you’ll turn from what’s tempting, that you’ll stand against what’s strangling, that you’ll escape into Him instead of trying to escape in a thousand unfulfilling ways.” (Ann VosKamp)

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Prying My Fingers Loose

It seems instinctive, this fear of loss, this near-stranglehold on what matters to us. Of course we’ve learned to cover it up well, to give it acceptable labels: we are concerned about the people we love; we value our friendships; we want to be good providers for our families; we want to take care of our health; we work hard and just want to unwind. We’ve learned to live with fear and to work it into our cultural norms quite well. But no one wants to dig below the surface and face the howling insecurities that drive us all.

So it goes against all sensibility, the way Abraham turned to Lot and said “Choose which land you think best for your flocks” as they looked out over the hills stretching away into the horizon– the land God had already given him.  And Lot chose and Abraham just nodded and let him go his way–Lot taking the best of land that wasn’t his to take and Abe giving what had been given, holding his Promised Land with open hands.

Makes me think about the things I hold onto, and why it is so hard to let go.

Maybe it’s the illusion of control when I hold onto things, the deception that still whispers that if I try hard enough I can shape my own destiny and keep my own heart safe, and the ones I love.  Because if I lose that security blanket (however flimsy) what is left is just me and my small concerns in a huge universe, at the mercy of the Creator, and is that really enough?  It is the same whisper that has echoed in the hearts of men since we first heard it in the Garden…. seems like we would have realized by now just Who is in charge, and how much better things were before we fell for that line.

But mostly it’s the fear of losing, when I hold onto things– fear that what is precious can be ruined and my heart can break at the loss.  Fear of not having enough that drives me to hoard and grab and fight for what is mine, like any starving child. Only it has far wider application than physical food; it’s about all the things I think I need: security, love, respect, significance, some meaning in this world. Life feels like a battle, most days, and we have all suffered casualties. We came right out of the Garden knowing how fragile life really is, and how you can lose it all in a few warped moments. Ever since, we have been clutching onto everything good with both hands as it runs through our fingers, trying to hold on and never lose it again.

But Abraham didn’t, even though he had left home behind and come so far to get what had been promised him.  He knew that it was all gift anyway, so he let his nephew take what he wanted, and kept on trusting the Giver to be faithful to His promises. Traveling through the harsh desert should have made him more wary, more mindful of loss, but somehow blessings overflowed into thankfulness enough to fill up his heart and open his hands. It strikes me as the best way to live, out of wholeness and contentment instead of fear….the only way to live, if we truly believe that when we have God we have everything good that is needful, and all things are working together for good, according to His promise.

So pry these fingers loose from the things I can see and touch. Deliver me from the instinct of Self-preservation, and the fear of losing that springs from mortality.  Let me live in full thankfulness, because all is gift, and there is a Giver who does not grow weary; I do not need to hold on tight, because You hold me and all the things I love in Your own love-scarred hands.

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“He who did not spare His own Son, but gave Him up for us all—how will He not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:32)

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“The more I submit my desires to Jesus while letting go of outcomes, the more He seems to answer the deepest longings of my soul. His abundance always surpasses my imagination and fulfills the prayers I didn’t even know I needed to pray.”  Shelly Miller

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Whatever You Need

“And my God will supply all your needs according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 3:19) It was the favorite verse of every impoverished college student, and we repeated it to one another encouragingly as we worked our campus jobs, and prayed over bills, and looked for lists of secondhand textbooks on the board in the Campus Center, checked our post office boxes for letters from home in hopes of a check. Lessons in faith well-learned in those years and often leaned upon. But somehow financial needs are the most straightforward place to trust and I have been struggling ever since to know where else to pin it.

Is that verse for parents who are raising a child with overwhelming health needs and finding it takes more energy than they have to give? Will God supply for the parents who are moving a college grad back home because he can’t find a job, knowing full well that student loans are looming? Does God’s promise of provision cover the heart-sore mother over another holiday, who just wishes her family could be together? Does that verse belong to the ministry leader who keeps pleading for more workers, and often grows weary?  So many needs, and they color our lives with desperation for a solution, because they make us feel helpless and afraid. We need a Provider, and doesn’t this well-known verse say that God will supply all our needs?

It strikes me, all these years later, that maybe it wasn’t really meant to be applied to many other things. Just before the Church-Planter Paul made this sweeping claim for the Philippian church, he commends them for giving generously to him in spite of their own hardship, and he confides to them that he has learned the secret of contentment through trial and error….in all the pressing and shifting circumstances of his journeys, he had found this one thing to be constant: the God who had called him was with him always and gave him strength to meet every situation.

In joyful abundance, it is Christ who enables Paul to live well in the midst of it. And in hunger and need, it is Christ who sustains him. It is a secret, a treasure Paul has found hidden in life’s ups and downs, the kind of thing you only find out by living through both. Clearly then, his statement to the Philippian church was no promise that God would supply everything lacking in their lives, nor was it a promise that they would never go without in the future. Maybe it’s just that their generosity is something God notices and rewards.

Indeed, because the secret of contentment is worth sharing with his readers, Paul implies that both abundance and need are only a means to an end. To his way of thinking it is good for our souls to experience both (and probably repeatedly, given how slow we are to learn) so that we may find the treasure of knowing Jesus Christ. Clearly going without was not something Paul feared– not something he would be quick to promise away for his readers. And yet a few paragraphs later he says God will supply all their needs, so it makes me think that maybe his idea of need is something different than mine.

We believe that Christ’s riches are big enough to cover, and we would definitely like God to supply all our needs as concretely as money in a bag, but I think Paul’s real point is about that deeper issue: the secret of knowing God and living in His presence, whether you have the tangible things you need or not. When I go looking for verses about God’s provision I see Him promising forgiveness, mercy, peace, justice, Presence, strength to do what is in front of me….these are the intangibles He thinks I need in life. The other stuff is just the extra details, the context. Like Jesus said, “But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” (Matthew 6:33)

It is a kind of culture shock, this head-long collision between normal human perspective and the spiritual reality, like trying to get my brain around a foreign concept. Show me what I really need, Lord, in each situation, and help me to focus there, rather than on the needs most obvious. Help me discover this secret of being “content in whatever circumstances I am.”

It would be frightening to depend on a God who cared more about my spiritual growth than my situation, except that I know His heart. I know His mercy endures forever. Verse after verse piles up overwhelmingly in my favor. He loves me and He is good. I can trust Him in this.

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“He who did not spare His own Son but gave Him up for us all, how will He not also with Him graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:32)

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“It is in our acceptance of what is given that God gives Himself.” (These Strange Ashes, Elizabeth Elliot)

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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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The Things We Hold Onto

The Easter season has unfolded very naturally into our next study on Acceptance and Gratitude. It is freshly amazing how God fits things together in the Body-life of this church family– what we are processing, singing about, praying for– to meet individual needs at the right time. If you have eyes to see the big picture, it is really quite remarkable how the Spirit moves and breathes among us as we press on in our faith-journey.

So the fasting and repentance of Lent gives way to the joy of Resurrection Sunday, and green spreads over our hills, every little grave of Winter opening up to new life and growth. And as we celebrate what Christ did for us, may our hearts open up and pour right out in gratitude, the way Mary’s anointing fragrance poured out on the feet of Jesus– a surrender of her treasure…her security…her future. He knew what it cost her, knew the faith she was proclaiming without words. “She has done a beautiful thing to me. When she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial,” Jesus said. (Matthew 26:10,12)

Shelly Miller points out that “Sacrificing what you love during Lent is like opening fisted hands into palms outstretched; laying out palms and waiting for Jesus to walk down the center of your busy life.”  There’s no escaping the fact that acceptance of God’s plans often means opening our hands in release: letting go of our ideas about what should happen, offering up our fears and our hurts, surrendering even our interpretation of circumstances to His better judgment. Because the things we hang onto tend to shape us in their image, and Jesus knows that what we need most is to be made new into His image. And when we let go, our hands are open to receive what He wants to give us, and there is more than we could expect.

So acceptance can’t help but lead to gratitude…or maybe it is the other way around, or even a full circle. And this woman who is supposed to remain invisible, sits and learns at Rabbi Jesus’ feet, and worships Him as the Messiah with her poured-out gift at the dinner table, and He publicly defends her actions, writes her down in history as one who proclaims His truth, while the men in the crowd are still arguing over how the money would be better spent, and deciding how far they are willing to follow Jesus. Trusting God’s way of doing things and having a thankful heart opens your spiritual eyes like nothing else.

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“Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in Me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in Me will never die. Do you believe this?'” (John 11:25-26)

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“You give life, You are love,
You bring light to the darkness;
 You give hope, You restore
Every heart that is broken…
Great are You, Lord.”

…It’s Your breath in our lungs,
So we pour out our praise to You only.”
(David Leonard, Jason Ingram)

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Looking Through Faith-colored Glasses

We talk a lot about walking by faith and not by sight. Paul the Church-planter said it just like that, in reference to living here and looking beyond to our Home-with-Christ: “For we live by faith, not by sight.” (2 Corinthians 5:7) 

But I think we mostly are talking about having faith to accomplish things. Faith that moves mountains. Faith that changes hearts and lives. Faith that takes risks and steps out to do impossible things. Faith that carries us through difficult times. And it’s pretty easy to understand that in all these pressing situations my own abilities fall short and I need to reach out to the power of God. Faith is more like trust in that context, and that makes sense to most of us, because we have experienced childlike dependence that reaches arms up to Someone Bigger Who Can Help. When we are looking for that kind of faith, it has more to do with convincing ourselves that He really does love us individually and personally. Or maybe, if we are utterly honest with ourselves, it’s about figuring out how to get His power to work out the circumstances we desire (and cope with it when He doesn’t). It’s not that I doubt Who He Is…just that I need to experience it for myself, prove to my heart and my senses that He is present, and interested in my small world.

But when the writer of Hebrews is reminding us of all the great people who lived by faith and what they accomplished by God’s power, he defines faith in a somewhat surprising way. It sounds more like poetry than fact, and I have read it for years as one of those beautiful sentences you just accept without understanding: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for….” (Hebrews 11:1) The substance– the nature, the very essence– of things unseen. Which, if you are talking about faith to do, or faith to receive what you desire, might lead you to conclude that faith produces substance– as if by believing something hard enough you can will it into existence. Of course many have gone down that road with all its spiritual and emotional gymnastics, until they inevitably meet big-enough circumstances to defy any amount of positive powerful thinking.

No, these ancient people of faith weren’t trying to create what they desired. For the most part they were listening to the bewildering instructions of God about what He wanted, and struggling to listen and obey. Faith is that act of latching onto what God says, in full confidence that He knows what He is doing, reaching out for something He says is Real and True, even though we cannot experience it with our senses. It reminds me of something I read recently in a random book summary: “Life lived for sensory input alone cannot deliver the spectacular promises that each sense evokes.” And my spirit resonates with the truth of that sentence: there are unseen worlds that we glimpse only briefly here, and the glory of God flashes like sunlight through the thin places….what the Oxford Christians saw as inklings of immortality, and Amy Carmichael called “the edges of His ways.”

The Letter-Writer of Hebrews helpfully specifies what exactly those ancient heroes were holding onto: the universe formed entire at God’s command, worlds and suns hung in space in an instant….the knowledge that God exists and wants to interact with His people, inspiring worship and obedience in their everyday lives….that death is not the end, but the beginning of a different kind of life….that righteousness is the proper condition of mankind….that all God’s promises are true and faithful. This is grand overarching Truth beyond the reach of physical senses. The old heroes were looking at the Reality beyond ours, the invisible world where God lives and moves and works out His plans, with a host of created beings at His command, where stars sing and the heavens bow before His throne.

This is a faith that goes beyond accomplishing things in my little world, and making life better in some way, with God’s help. Because that’s still all about my interests and my concerns. It is a good start, at least, and Heaven knows I need all the help I can get, to live here. But let’s recognize what the author of Hebrews is talking about: a larger, bolder faith that opens its eyes to God’s world and what He is doing– the Real World, you could even say, with Jesus in the center, “For in Him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through Him and for Him.” (Colossians 1:16) In this context, faith is more like opening your eyes to see what has always been there. “Faith is… the evidence of things hoped for.” (Hebrews 11:1) Faith is our spiritual eyes and ears, gathering evidence of the unseen world and witnessing to the truth of what God tells us.

And when the unseen realities become as near and tangible to us as the physical world, we’re not just wishing for a better life any more and reaching out to God to help us. Faith literally gives us the substance of an unseen world beyond the tangible experiences of this earth, and Hope along with it. Not a daydream sort of hope, but a foundation-to-build-life-on sort of hope… an assurance of what is to come that is as dependable as the sun rising and the seasons changing….the kind of thing you can only know for sure when the eyes of faith are open. So open your eyes, and run well in this New Year. Because we understand what is lasting and real, and what is fading away. Because we have the evidence of the Unseen, alive and powerful within us. Because faith witnesses to God’s Truth every day. Because everyone is watching, like it or not. “Since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.” (Hebrews 12:1-2)

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“All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth.”  (Hebrews 11:13)

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“If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing.” (CS Lewis)

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When Hope is What You Really Need

In the space of a week Seasons turn, and we go from thanks-giving to waiting, preparing for the birth-day of the Christ Child. And as usual, trepidation and excitement wrestle in my heart for the upper hand. It’s a battle between all the extra work of the season and all the things I truly love about Christmas, and it remains to be seen which feeling will come out on top. I know I am not alone in the mixed feelings. Despite all the glitter and gaiety, or maybe because of it, there is an undercurrent of quiet desperation– as if the whole world feels most strongly this time of year just how much we need a Savior. This is why we observe Advent, to remember in this month of preparation that the fears of our hearts and our wild hopes for happy endings intersected in a stable-cave in Bethlehem long ago on that Holy Night, when all of God’s promises were poured into flesh….all of them “fulfilled in Christ with a resounding ‘Yes!’” (2 Corinthians 1:20)

So here at the beginning of Winter…as the Christmas season launches headlong into its race to be bigger, do more, shine brighter… as one year crosses out its last days and another looms large ahead, we unpack our trappings of Christmas and mark off the days of our waiting. We light the candles and read again the old story, unpack the traditions of our years that are rich with meaning, hang the angels on the tree, and wrap up surprise gifts for those we love. All with the silent message: there is Hope for every longing heart. For God Himself has come down to us, and the world cannot ever be the same again.

For all who have held onto the bare branches of Winter and searched hard for Hope, listened long through the night for answers that never seem to come, looked at the blank expanse of a new year with nothing but dread at its enormity, the lights on the tree shine through the window like little beacons lighting the way. The beauty of this Season calls to the spirit, somehow– whispers what we are straining to hear all year long– that there is magic in this old world, something More than what we see and touch, something of eternal value and immense meaning hidden behind the glittery trappings. And the angels on the tree hold out hope in their hands: “See, the Sovereign Lord comes….He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.” (Isaiah 40:10-11)

But this season of frantic Joy to The World can grind you down to weariness, take away every last shred of peace if you are not looking for the One who brings it. Ironic, isn’t it, that the very way we celebrate the birth of the Savior only serves to underline our need for deliverance. God spoke through the prophet Isaiah seven hundred years ahead of time to reassure us about His coming: “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out. In faithfulness he will bring forth justice…” (Isaiah 42:3) The Creator stoops to our need, bends to lift up a fragile broken world and make it new with His own flesh-and-blood hands. There is help for the burdens we carry, and hope for restoration of every crazy situation we face; the future may be unknown to us, but it is not so to Him, and He will bring justice (in the old-fashioned sense of protecting the innocent and vulnerable, and righting of wrongs). The words of the old hymn resound, “Fear not to trust my mighty arm; it brought salvation down.” (JW Howe) 

The angels over Bethlehem shouted until they shook the heavens, and I am sure it was magnificent and glorious when they announced Jesus’ birth, but I have always been drawn to the laments of the prophets, waiting for God’s promises to come true and reminding God’s people of His faithfulness. Thus saith the Lord…“By Myself I have sworn, My mouth has uttered in all integrity a word that will not be revoked: Before Me every knee will bow; by Me every tongue will swear. They will say of Me, ‘In the Lord alone are deliverance and strength.’” (Isaiah 45:23-24) This is a solid Hope to hold onto, a compass point to steer by so we don’t get lost amid the shopping and baking and partying; this is the depth of meaning that underlies every sparkle of Christmas. God is with us, and He is for us– if you listen you can hear the angels: “This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:12)

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” So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” (Isaiah 41:10)

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“He has come for us, this Jesus
He’s the hope for all mankind
He has come for us, The Messiah,
Born to give us life…”
(He Has Come for Us, Meredith Andrews)

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Who We Are

So much of what we have learned about finding our balance is just a matter of living as Christ-followers– responding to God as creatures should, and being transformed as believers should, walking in newness of life as partners in His plan to shine the light of the knowledge of Christ into the world. If we realize a calling specific to us within that Plan, all the better, but we could live a whole life of shining love and doing good, and fulfill His purpose beautifully.

Something stood out to me in one of King David’s songs this week; it caught me again, that connection between belonging to God and thankfulness. Right in the middle there the king tells us to “Know that the Lord, He is God! It is He who made us, and we are His….”  It is short and direct, something every creature needs to know: the Creator is God and you are not.

Get that much clear and a whole lot of other things in life straighten themselves out too. Remember this, as we prepare for the holiday where we give thanks…while we organize people and plan meals and arrange transportation and vacation time…that there is Someone who made all this, owns all this, rules all this, and the holiday is precisely about giving thanks for what He has provided, even when we make a lot of fuss about our own makings. “We are His people, and the sheep of His pasture….” who truly need a Shepherd to take care of them, because there are some things we can control in this world and so many we cannot. Good thing He is always taking care of us, whether we stop to recognize it and give thanks, or not.

But when you do stop and recognize that He is God– that it is He who rules over creation and provides for every small living creature, including yourself, thanksgiving is the only proper response.

The king sings it out in the next lines, flowing from one thought to the next so naturally that praise becomes the obvious overflowing of a person who knows his identity: “Enter His gates with thanksgiving, and His courts with praise! Give thanks to Him; bless His name!”

It’s easy to forget sometimes that all this is gift and grace. Easy to take life for granted because it’s all we’ve ever known, and easy to wish we had something different, when we compare ourselves to others. Except that we could just as easily compare ourselves to the starving, and the naked and diseased, to see how very blessed we are. David paints it rightly, that our worship comes in full knowledge of our dependence on His goodwill and kindness. And we bless His name for who He is, because “the Lord is good; His steadfast love endures forever….”  We are the Found Sheep who belong to a loving God, and it is our purpose to give thanks.

Come, ye thankful people, come…

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“I will give thanks to you, Lord, with all my heart; I will tell of all your wonderful deeds. I will be glad and rejoice in you; I will sing the praises of your name, O Most High.”
 (Psalm 9:1-2)

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“I am loved;
I am new again;
I am free–
I’m no slave to sin;
I’m saint;
I am righteousness;
I’m alive….
I am all He says I am,
And He says I am His own.”
(All He Says I Am, Gateway Worship)

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