Not Finished Yet

As another study draws to a close and I set the book on a shelf in the living room, the scary thing is how easy it is to move on, to mark that topic “done” and set it aside. As if I could ever be finished learning about the Holy Spirit or stop looking at what He is doing in my life…slow as growth seems sometimes, His influence is as inexorable as water and wind wearing down a rock, and before I know it years have gone by and I am surprised at the form my life has taken under His hand. This is a long-term process of transformation, and though we may be done studying the specific topic of how the Spirit cultivates His fruit, my growth is far from over.

We were talking this past week how following Jesus is a hands-on learning process, something that must be experienced and not just read about; our classroom study can only take us so far, and then we have to get out there and try and fail, and try again, till we get the feel of the struggle…of listening and obeying…of putting Self to death…of living as a new creature. Rather like an internship done under the supervision of someone with more experience, which is exactly what Paul says we are doing: “And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.” (Hebrews 12:1b-2) 

So it could be that as I put another study up on the shelf, thankful for all we have learned here, and already turning my thoughts to the next book, the real lessons are just beginning. James (the “big brother” to Jesus, who talks as if he were that to all of us) says that just hearing God’s Word has about as much effect as catching a glimpse of yourself in the mirror as you walk past a room. A momentary flash of attention that will no more fix what’s wrong with you than it will a bad hair day. But stopping and giving it your full attention, putting hands and feet and time and money into doing something with it– that’s where transformation begins.  He assures us that “…whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.” (James 1:25) He even goes so far as to say that your faith is useless, unless it enters the everyday and makes both you and your corner of the world better. An intern goes into the real world with what he has learned and puts it into practice, and yes he will often make mistakes, but at least his learning is proving itself to be worthwhile.

The funny thing is, that for every messy error, you learn so much more; there is something about trying it yourself that grows you exponentially, way beyond what a desk-bound scholar could ever process and retain. Ask any surgeon or electrician or elementary school teacher. You have to study hard and pay close attention, fix your eyes on what is true and worth remembering, but you also need to work with it and see how it affects everyday life– prove its accuracy and value to yourself and to others, let it change the way things are into something better.

So maybe it is time to put the books away– not so we can move on and forget it, but so we have our hands free. It’s time to move out of the classroom and into the world with what the Holy Spirit is cultivating in us.

 

 

 

 

“You lived among the least of these:
The weary and the weak.
And it would be a tragedy
For me to turn away.
All my needs You have supplied,
When I was dead You gave me life.
How could I not give it away so freely?

And I’ll follow You into the homes that are broken;
I’ll follow You into the world,
Meet the needs for the poor and the needy, God;
I’ll follow You into the world.”
(Follow You, Leeland)

 

 

 

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Great Is His Faithfulness

We found the words of that old favorite hymn last week, tucked into the middle of Jeremiah’s lament for his people. Regardless of how bad the destruction in his war-torn land, how deep the ache of his grief and loss, he found hope springing up when he realized that the mercy and compassion of God would never fail, would never give up, never run out on them. “Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for His compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness.” (Lamentations 3:23)

Of all the gardening results of the Holy Spirit’s work in us, faithfulness was the one I never considered much, mostly because my natural abilities to persevere tended to get in the way. But in studying faithfulness, I see this, that focus and determination to stick with a job to the very end is a pale and laborious imitation of the joy-strength the Holy Spirit gives us as we go. Without His presence, the way often seems overwhelmingly difficult– the load too heavy to carry. To live with faithfulness and run well, with joy and peace and hope for the future, requires something more than I can summon in myself.

One of the women said it well in small group the other night, that Faithfulness is the everyday outworking of what we believe, the consistent outpouring action of the Faith we hold in our hearts, new every morning– saying no to temptations and selfishness, fulfilling the roles we have been given, doing our best with what we have to glorify the Giver and bring honor to His Name, serving with willing hands and cheerful hearts like Jesus did….and then doing it all over again the next day and the next. We can see how it is a result of the Holy Spirit’s very present help, offered anew every morning from the Lord’s unfailing compassion and mercy for us. He is the One who is faithful to us, giving us the strength to be faithful ourselves. Faithfulness even makes it through the horrors of battlefields and the famine of wastelands…not because we are strong enough to keep pushing on, but because there is Someone who can carry us.

Maybe that was what Jeremiah knew, shining through his grief: “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) When you set your faith on God’s nature and His good plans, and see Him more clearly than your circumstances all around, you can do the things you should do and keep at it…be faithful at living well… because there is a faithful God behind the scenes Who will do all things well for you.

Paul’s  prayer for the believers says it exactly right: “We pray that you’ll have the strength to stick it out over the long haul—not the grim strength of gritting your teeth but the glory-strength God gives. It is strength that endures the unendurable and spills over into joy, thanking the Father who makes us strong enough to take part in everything bright and beautiful that he has for us.” (from Colossians 1:9-12, The Message)

As the stresses of the holidays begin to loom, and tired women begin to fray at the seams, we can ask for eyes to see God’s great faithfulness, to recognize His mercy and compassion “new every morning.” We can rest our hearts there, and then be faithful to serve our families, with all the extra cooking and traveling and decorating and shopping to make their holidays feel special and their hearts feel loved… yes, but more than that, with joyful hearts that seek the Lord and wait quietly for Him. He will not let us down.

 

 

 

 

“Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty….He will cover you with His feathers, and under His wings you will find refuge; His faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.” (Psalm 91:1,4)

 

 

 

“You were reaching through the storm, 
Walking on the water —
Even when I could not see; 
In the middle of it all, 
When I thought You were a thousand miles away, 
Not for a moment did You forsake me… 

After all, You are constant; 
After all, You are only good;
After all, You are sovereign; 
Not for a moment will You forsake me… ”
(Not for a Moment, Meredith Andrews)

 

 

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Applying Grace

So we’ve been talking about how Patience-kindness-goodness are tied together in the same way that Love-joy-peace are intertwined, and all springing from the Holy Spirit connecting us to the vital life of Christ. This is the lifestyle appropriate to God’s adopted children who have experienced grace and forgiveness firsthand. More than that, we are called to it, as a ministry and a life’s work, to imitate Christ and so draw others into the kingdom. Paul says it this way: “For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to Himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them. And He gave us this wonderful message of reconciliation. So we are Christ’s ambassadors; God is making His appeal through us. We speak for Christ when we plead, ‘Come back to God!'” (2 Corinthians 5:19-20) 

If Patience is what enables us to bear with others’ brokenness and hold back our natural reactive responses, then Kindness has enough compassion to try to understand them and want what is best for them….and Goodness? Well, it puts all that into action and does what is best for them, and lest we slide into thinking of Goodness as some bland shallow sweetness that is irrelevant to everyday life, let’s remember that Goodness is defined and expressed by the broken bloody body of a man dying, unjustly tortured and executed for the wrong-doing of others. Goodness is fierce and tangible and wildly unexpected in the way it enters into the reality of the everyday. All three take superhuman strength to produce with any consistency.

So these three intertwined qualities are the people-skills the Holy Spirit produces in us, as we learn to abide in Him, the qualities of God’s own nature working out in our lives. It is what helps us to endure living here among difficult people. It is what this ministry of reconciliation will require. It is the “So what?” of Grace. And here we have the overflowing thankfulness for what Christ has done for us popping out again, but this time in practical outworking toward difficult people; praise for who He is that expresses itself in hands and feet and lives to serve as He did.

The deeper we go into this study of the Fruit of the Holy Spirit (the results of His presence abiding in us) the more there is to learn….but let us keep taking it one step at a time, beginning with thankfulness and continuing on to praise…and doing whatever He puts in front of us in dependence on His Spirit, applying grace to the rough ragged edges of Today.

 

 

“You are good You are good
When there’s nothing good in me
You are love You are love
On display for all to see
You are light You are light
When the darkness closes in
You are hope You are hope
You have covered all my sin.”
(Forever Reign, Hillsong)

 

 

“Gratitude is the demanding question mark in the grammar of your life – otherwise your life needs editing… ‘So you are grateful and — ?? What are you going to do?… How now will you live?’” (Ann Voskamp)

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What are you Seeking?

Some things are indispensable in life.

Your presence, Lord, is one of them.

Looking back at my life so far, I can see that everything worthwhile has been gained from the one overwhelming need to know You, hear You, see You. The Musician-King knew it too, how nothing else would satisfy…”One thing I ask…this is what I seek: That I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to seek Him in His temple.” (Psalm 27:4)

You don’t get to that place out of any strength or special insight or goodness. You get to that point because you have come to the end of your own.  It’s unbearable thirst for something More, a hunger that aches till you might well die of all the stuff you consume that isn’t God. You might even find the answer unexpectedly, when you stumble into the wilderness places of life. It’s when you walk in life’s desert places and realize how little this world can give you to satisfy the bone-deep dry thirsting, you begin to realize for yourself what a treasure Jesus was offering when He said that He could give the Living Water that would not run dry (John 10:13-14).

The Singer knew Your presence, longed for You in the wilderness, poured the hollow places of his soul into songs that rose as prayers to You. “O God, you are my God, earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you, my body longs for you, in a dry and weary land where there is no water….Because your love is better than life, my lips will glorify you.” (Psalm 63:1, 3)… water in the desert to refresh a weary traveler.

More and more I understand how backwards we go about life, looking for the things we need instead of looking for the Giver. Even when it comes to the fruit the Spirit of God grows in us, it is so easy to get sidetracked into pursuing a character quality that will make our relationships work better, make us a better person, make us feel better inside– as if we were planting a garden with the vegetables we liked best– missing the point entirely. Maybe it’s just the gardening metaphor that misleads us, or maybe it is our persistent Self-focus at work. See it’s not about cultivating the qualities we want: growing more patience with our kids, or being more forgiving toward our husbands, or gaining more self-control in our eating habits. It’s about what we need the most even when we don’t realize it: a life-giving relationship with the God who has come to dwell with us. It takes time to figure that out as we grow– that it is a Person we are looking for, not a tangible outcome or even an abstract quality.

When the Church-planter Paul talks about the fruit of the Spirit he uses the word karpos, which means simply effect or result. These qualities we are examining then are the result of the Spirit’s presence, much the same as any person has an effect on the room he enters. And so my well-intentioned pursuit of good qualities actually turns into a rabbit-hunt in the brambles (or, to stick with the gardening metaphor, a long labor in the soil with a rake and a hoe) until I never-mind all that and just seek this Person with all the intensity of first love, give myself completely into His care and leave the outcome to Him. 

As the great preacher A.W.Tozer said,  “Before we can be filled with the Spirit, the desire to be filled must be all-consuming. It must be for the time the biggest thing in the life, so acute, so intrusive as to crowd out everything else….We have as much of God as we actually want.”  

 

 

 

“Your presence is all I need; It’s all I want; it’s all I seek, And without it…without it I’m not living.” (I Will Exalt, Amanda Falk)

 

 

 

 

 

 

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We Need Patience Right Now

It always puzzled me, in the parable of the wicked servant, how he was forgiven such a huge debt and then turned around to show no mercy whatsoever to his own servant who owed him money. That huge disconnect never made sense, and when the parable came up in our study this week it got me pondering again. We talked about it in small group, surmising motivations and reading between the lines of the story to get at the heart of the man… and then someone said it and there it was, as clear as day: “He didn’t appreciate the gift he himself had received…he was not thankful for grace.”

Jesus’ story is an answer to a question about forgiveness, and He makes it very clear that our forgiveness of others springs from the recognition that we ourselves have been forgiven of a debt we could never repay: “ten thousand talents,” a figure of speech in those days to refer to an incalculable amount, beyond comprehension. Oddly enough, right in the middle of the story is our word…the servant pleading, “Have patience with me, and I will repay you everything,” which of course he never could in a lifetime of trying, but there we find patience linked to trespassing on another’s rights.

We often use patience to talk about waiting, especially if the lines are long and the children are small. We easily think of irritating circumstances that make life more difficult, times when we need to stay calm and put a smile on our faces. But God ties patience specifically to people who step on our rights, thwart our desires, owe us debts– people who need forgiveness. Paul writes that because we belong to God and are loved by Him, we should wear patience like everyday clothing, “bear with each other and forgive one another.” This is what grows when we live in God’s presence, our fresh-start identities giving us a new framework for relating to the people around us. The church-planter echoes the underlying foundation of Jesus’ story: “Forgive as the Lord forgave you.” (Colossians 3:13) Gratitude and joy in God’s gift of salvation spilling out into compassion and kindness toward the debts of others.

At the start of a busy week, I know I need patience; I need the Holy Spirit’s constant reminder of how big grace is, and how undeserved, of the depth of God’s love, and the broad scope of His plans, if I am going to “put up with people even when sorely tried” (Alan Cole). Gratitude is the place to start.

 

 

 

“A person’s wisdom yields patience; it is to one’s glory to overlook an offense.” (Proverbs 19:11)

 

**Read the entire story of the servant who didn’t understand grace in Matthew 18:21-35.

 

 

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Standing Still

There is a stillness under the wide clear sky and golden sun, when the world slows and you become profoundly aware of every rock and tree, the beating of your heart, the play of wind….and the Presence of God around and underneath. That’s what I love best about the wide open spaces of the West. The trick is to find that place of stillness when you get back to the everyday and face the crazy-ness that is work and household and family and your own well-being, when you find yourself so crowded with the stuff of life you wonder if it might crowd the Life right out of you.

And before I know it I am cooking butter-laden “comfort food,” eating streusel coffee cake for breakfast, watching movies too late at night, and shopping online while I keep working harder to get everything done….grabbing onto anything that can dim the roar for a moment of peace. A person’s soul can get spun dizzy and frantic on this merry-go-round and long for a place to rest. Surprising how easy it is to forget where peace comes from, and how naturally we turn to the things around us for comfort. Peace comes quietly and unannounced when you just stop it all, and sit still in the presence of Jesus, when you look around at the world He has made and marvel at grace. Just ask the much-maligned Martha of Bethany and her sister Mary (Luke 10:40-42). It’s when you take the time to stand still in His presence that the uproar inside stills, and there is space to breathe deep. Jesus said it was the only necessary thing, and that its benefits would last into Forever.

We’ve been talking about how so much of the walk of faith has to do with our focus, and here it is again– the busier I am, the easier my thoughts fly everywhere and focus on the To Do lists, but the busier I am, the more my soul needs to stand still a moment and focus on Jesus, to find peace. His peace is right there, and He invites us in constantly. “You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on You, because he trusts in You.” (Isaiah 26:3) It’s only my distracted and diseased soul that pulls me away to focus on my efforts, my worries, my needs, my thin substitutions of peace-for-the-moment…as if it were up to me to find all the solutions, when what I really need is to trust.

So I am re-reminding myself of Truth this day: slowing down to read the verses stuck to my fridge, listening to the songs that turn my heart towards Who He Is, counting the gifts of grace I see…my heart and mind standing still. “Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:7) It’s the only way I’ll keep standing at all.

 

“The more I seek You, 
The more I find You; 
The more I find You, the more I love You.

I wanna sit at Your feet,
Drink from the cup in Your hand,
Lay back against You and breathe, feel your heart beat.
This love is so deep, it’s more than I can stand;
I melt in Your peace– it’s overwhelming” (The More I Seek You, Kari Jobe)

 

 

“…the only way to have a peace that passes all understanding is to pass by all that doesn’t let you stand close under the arm of Peace Himself…” (Ann VosKamp)

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Peace Is A Choice

“…you and I make the sacrifice of trust when we face the painful and distressing realities of our life and then choose to trust God instead of panicking and falling apart. When circumstances in my life might tempt me to panic, feel terrified, become a nervous wreck, or be filled with dread, I can choose either to give in to those feelings or to trust in God and present myself to Him to be filled with His peace. And I must make this conscious choice each and every day….” (Elizabeth George)

This is the practical truth of God’s Word applied to our everyday. If Jesus is our Prince of Peace, then dwelling in His presence is all the peace we could ever hope for. Not the absence of stressful circumstances but the presence of the God who holds all things in His hand. When I know down deep in the very core of my being that He is Who He says He is, then I can echo the song-writer: “The Lord is my light and my salvation— so why should I be afraid?” (Psalm 27:1)

I see this, that if I am worried and frightened, it says more about the state of my heart than it does about either my surroundings or about His ability to do all things well for me. So each day I will choose to lay down my fears at His feet, sacrifice my fretful worries on the altar of faith, trust the One who is bigger than all of us.

 

“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. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:6-7)

“My strength is in Your name,
For You alone can save.
You will deliver me;
Yours is the victory…
Whom shall I fear?

And nothing formed against me shall stand–
You hold the whole world in your hands.
I’m holding onto Your promises;
You are faithful,
You are faithful.”
(God of Angel Armies, Chris Tomlin)

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Needy People

Her face caught my eye on Sunday, the mixture of awe and hope, the trace of tears, a bit of self-consciousness as she whispered her new-found faith. And then later she posted for everyone to see, “You’re my one defense, my righteousness– oh God how I need You.” Her need and God’s supply fit together like pieces of a whole: The Way-Things-Should-Be. Or maybe it was she who was finally made whole, when she was re-created at the Cross, born anew into the person she was always meant to be.  But it’s funny how we often get that far and then start thinking it’s up to us to finish this faith-journey on our own. It’s not a new stumbling-block by any means; the Church-planter Paul scolded the believers in Asia Minor for the very same idea: “How foolish can you be? After starting your Christian lives in the Spirit, why are you now trying to become perfect by your own human effort?” (Galatians 3:3)

I heard an older, wiser man sharing last week how he didn’t start growing in his faith until he gave up on the idea that he was a pretty good guy– realized how very much he needed God’s help to follow Christ.  It is a truth we can’t side-step, and one we would all be wise to learn sooner rather than later: our need is the common denominator for all spiritual growth, because until we recognize our own lack we cannot begin to seek Something More. It’s what brings the sinner to the cross, seeking forgiveness. It’s what brings the believer to his knees every day, seeking the power to live as a new creature. Because both new birth and transformation depend on my realizing just how unable I am to achieve God’s goodness and follow His ways on my own.

The crazy-wonderful thing about it is that God loves to hear our cries for help. It’s Heaven’s turning the world’s perspectives upside-down again. We grow up physically and learn to be self-sufficient, equate maturity with independence. But our heavenly Father says dependence on Him is “sufficient for every need” (2 Corinthians 12:9) and child-like trust in His right to rule is “measuring up to the full and complete standard of Christ.” (Ephesians 4:13)  It’s what Adam and Eve didn’t grasp in their fruit-tasting experiment– refusing to admit their need for the Creator’s guidance and choosing to step out into their own understanding of The-Way-Things-Should-Be was not growth at all, but stunning failure. So we are learning in our spiritual growth to live as children again, under the authority of our heavenly Father… re-discovering innocence, faith, hope that wonderful things can happen in the world.

As we study the growth of the Spirit’s fruit in us, this “good work” He is doing, I see over and over again that my part is dependence and trust, being willing to be an empty clay pot and seeking More of Him to fill the need in myself.  And I look around at this Family of brothers and sisters and wonder if it is not the mark of every passionate Christ-follower to be willing to live in a state of paradox: always hungry, and constantly filled, crying out in need, and constantly helped. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted….Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” (Matthew 5:3-4, 6)

 

 

 

“Lord, I come, I confess
Bowing here I find my rest;
Without You I fall apart;
You’re the One that guides my heart.
Lord, I need You, oh, I need You…”
(Lord, I Need You, Matt Maher)

 

 

“Unless the Lord builds a house, the work of the builders is wasted. Unless the Lord protects a city, guarding it with sentries will do no good.” (Psalm 127:1)

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Better Together

The ad on TV finished with the company’s slogan: “Life’s better when we’re connected.” It sparked in me how true that is, but I wasn’t thinking about banking at all. I thought of the bonds that tie us together as Christ-followers, making us One Body and Christ the head. I thought of women sitting around the table listening close, sharing their stories– what God is teaching them as they live out the days they have been given. Of letting each other into sorrows and concerns, being honest about how hard it is to grow sometimes. Of tears and soul-baring and the box of tissues passed around yet again. How there are hugs in the hallway and whispers of “praying for you,” meals brought to the doorstep and willing hands to help. No question, life is better when we’re connected, and the burdens lighten and hearts are strengthened on the journey.

When the Church-planter Paul talks about Christ-followers being connected there is an unmistakable whiff of joy, and the threads of thankfulness and praise start running through his words again. “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” (Colossians 3:16) I see this– as God’s truth takes up residence in our hearts and we take residence in His presence– how rich our connections with each other become. And it makes sense that there is joy, because Jesus promised that “… where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” (Matthew18:20) Wind, fire, breath of God moving among us, invisible and life-changing, the very presence of the One who is called Exceeding Joy.

It’s the way God meant for us to live, all the branches connected to the One Vine and thus to one another. Is it any wonder we would grow better that way?

 

 

 

“Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful.” Colossians 3:12-15

 

 

 

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What Color is Joy?

So we are still counting God’s blessings each day, asking for eyes to see His goodness all around– feeling hope rise even as Winter approaches, and joy burn steady at the center of us. And could there be a better time to do it, when the world is turning bright before our very eyes? If Summer shows us the abundance of God’s provision, then Autumn is the season that shouts His glory to the skies.

 

 

 

“In October, what is real is seen: even the trees burn with primeval fire for their Maker and First Love. Now is not the time to be demure in joy. 

In October any wonderful unexpected thing might be possible. Joy isn’t ever in a season, but in the way we see. His Grace, His mercy, His love — saturating everything.” Ann VosKamp

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