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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What the Birds Already Know

A watercolor of a single bird hangs on my bedroom wall, a lovely study in blues and browns floating almost without context in its frame– no leaves or world beyond, just the huddled bird perched quietly on its branch, the way they do when they settle in. I saw the canvas in the window of a gallery in the southwest, while we were on vacation, and immediately the words of Isaiah 26:3 came to mind: “You will keep in perfect peace those whose minds are steadfast, because they trust in You.” It always strikes me how in the big wide world of winds and storms and predators and limitless skies, the songbirds fly fearless: fragile creatures of bone, and feather, and beating heart that live in simple trust.

Jesus said that all His creatures can live that way, because they know the Creator and trust His care of them. Lilies and sparrows alike have everything they need under His watchful gaze. Jesus even uses their total trust as evidence that we are needlessly worried for ourselves. He lays it out there as if the logic should be self-evident, as if our lack of understanding borders on the absurd: “If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today, and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith!” (Luke 12:28) 

Could it be that much of our stress and pressure and complex lives is self-inflicted and utterly unnecessary? Jesus stands firm on a simple theological truth that God is the Creator and takes care of all His creatures. Indeed, it is His job, as the Ruler of all, and the glory of His Name depends on it. That sounds so very basic and sensible, almost too simple to be true. But Jesus is reminding us of something that we actually once knew, a truth we lost long ago in the Garden: that our job was to work well for Him and be satisfied and fulfilled, and His job was to take care of us. Way back then, the Enemy planted in Eve’s heart the small fear that God had some hidden agenda, that perhaps He did not have our best interests in mind after all. That one small idea burrowed its way into the heart of us and grew the bitter fruit of mistrust, crowding out the simple dependence on the Creator that had once come naturally. And so we headed out into the world in all our blustering self-sufficiency, determined to prove we could do life on our own and maybe do it better…who knew what a weight of stress and striving and worry we were also claiming.

By now the contrast between those who truly know their Maker, and those who do not is quite evident. Jesus says it shows up clearly in what we are chasing after.  “…Do not set your heart on what you will eat or drink; do not worry about it. For the pagan world runs after all such things, and your Father knows that you need them.” (Luke 12:29) Those who do not live trustingly in a good Father’s care run and chase and build and fret. But if we know the Father is taking care of our needs, that frees us up to pursue His Kingdom with our whole hearts, a much more rewarding endeavor in the long run. Jesus emphasizes His promise “…seek His kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.” (Luke 12:31)

As we pursue simplicity then, we are being called back to  an understanding of ourselves as creatures under the Maker’s painstaking care. The Great One who “counts the stars  and calls them all by name” (Psalm 147:4) is fully aware of my needs for today and quite capable of providing the resources to fill them. And I can choose whether to live in trust that whatever He gives me today is enough, or to worry that He won’t provide and run around to find more. This daily minute-by-minute choice to trust is a spiritual exercise, a habit we are building, a peace and simplicity we are discovering. Every time I see that bird on his branch, I remember.

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“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care.” (Matthew 10:29)

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“So I will call upon Your name,
And keep my eyes above the waves;
When oceans rise,
My soul will rest in Your embrace,
For I am Yours and You are mine…”
(Oceans, Hillsong)

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How We Run

As we study our purpose as women, and understand better how to fight as ezer-warriors in the circles that are ours, a couple themes keep surfacing: Inner stillness. Intimacy with God. Perseverance. Dependence on our Maker. Focus. Intentionality.

It will be a lifetime’s exploration to discover how to be God’s image-bearers in this world: in this season of life… in the hard things we face… in these particular relationships… in the changing currents of opinion. We all know that Everyday gets complicated and that it is way too easy to lose sight of how Jesus would handle this situation, or how He would love. But perhaps we can go on from here in the pursuit of these basic themes? If we can embrace these simple values as we run our Faith-race, the rest will become clear as we step forward.

Of course they are not simple in the sense of being easy; none of these inner practices were part of our old lives, so as new creatures we often feel like we are learning to walk all over again. Jesus said it would not be easy. “But the gateway to life is very narrow and the road is difficult, and only a few ever find it.” (Matthew 7:14) The broad easy way only leads to death, and who wants to spend a precious short life running there? No, these practices are simple in the sense of being foundational… basic first steps that everything else will depend upon. The ancient church called them spiritual disciplines– a good term, but one that makes us a little wary in the modern world. We are not entirely sure what it means and discipline tends to make us think of correction and punishment that we would rather avoid. Distressingly, the dictionary agrees that we have lost the valuable meaning of the word; the definitions pushed to the end of the list are the ones that bloom rich with benefit: “training that corrects, molds, or perfects the mental faculties or moral character….self-control…orderly conduct or pattern of behavior.” It sounds like the tough training of an athlete or a cadet, but the cost is worth it when we are looking for a Life-lived-well, that leaves something meaningful behind. After all, if we are running without direction or guidance, we are expending a huge amount of effort to get nowhere.

So these foundational themes that we desire may not come naturally, but with some practice they can become new pathways of growth, new habits that can break through our familiar comfortable routines and thought patterns, to help us focus on spiritual things. We can choose to cultivate new routines that will nurture our spiritual growth and lead us closer to Jesus. Any athlete can tell you that the success of the race depends on building good habits, and staying focused; since our race is one of faith, it should not surprise us that our own success will depend on training spiritual muscles and growing inner health as new creatures in Christ. Jesus went so far as to say that we are useless if we are not remaining connected to Him. He spoke a word-picture of a garden, saying to His followers “I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5) We want to look beyond what is evident to our senses, and strengthen our spiritual perceptions– learn to depend on the loving presence of our Savior and grow up into the women He created us to be.

Fortunately, it is fairly obvious that these simple habits will need to be fueled by our relationship with Him. Even such basic practices as simplicity and silence and focus will require the strength of the Holy Spirit moving in us, because they go against the current of the large, loud, distracting world we live in. These disciplines will have to be repetitious actions that are driven by spiritual force into the physical world. Not because we are so capable and determined, but because we are so captivated by our Savior, so humbly broken by our need for Him. It will be an outpouring of spiritual longing like the Musician-King expressed: “O God, you are my God; I earnestly search for you. My soul thirsts for you; my whole body longs for you in this parched and weary land where there is no water.” (Psalm 63:1)

Perhaps it is that simple, that the more we want of Him, the less we will depend on what we can see and touch in this world, and our daily habits and choices will begin to reflect those values. There’s a reason Jesus said “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” (Matthew 5:6) Filled not with a momentary comfort of the here-and-now, but with the eternal Bread of Life. Only those who are truly hungry are willing to do what it takes to seek Him. Let’s start with the simple spiritual disciplines that shape the soul.

May our hearts be hungry for God and His ways, and may we ever be filled with more of Him.

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“Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—His good, pleasing and perfect will.” (Romans 12:2)

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“He is the one who can tell us the reason for our existence, our place in the scheme of things, our real identity….He will whisper it to us not in the mad rush and fever of our striving and our fierce determination to be someone, but rather when we are content to rest in Him, to put ourselves into His keeping, into His hands. Most delightfully of all, it is a secret He will tell us slowly and sweetly, when we are willing to spend time with Him: time with Him who is beyond all time.” (Emilie Griffin)

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The Biggest Question of All

It’s the question we all are all asking inside, when we are standing by a grave. Whether it is the resting place of a dream we were holding onto, or saying goodbye to a season of life, or the wrenching physical loss of someone we love. We are all wondering “Where is God?” Our minds can inform us of the fact of His presence, but what we really want to know is if He cares how we feel. Is He near when I need Him? Will He help me? And even when Faith steps up to proclaim the promise, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him…” (Romans 8:28), we can’t help but wonder how soon that good is going to surface.

God knows us to the core, and so He plays out a story for us– lets us see the two sisters Mary and Martha ask the same questions, as they watch their brother die and wrap him for burial, and Jesus still does not come to rescue them. They grieve and wonder about the One who said He loved them. But some productive wrestling can happen in the dark, when it is just your heart and those big questions, and by the time Jesus finally shows up the sisters are holding onto faith with all their might. Martha can say “…if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.” (John 11:21) We can hear her faint wild glimmer of hope that death may not be the end of the story, regardless of everything she understands. And Mary comes running when Jesus calls for her, not ashamed to bare her heart to Him because she trusts His love. We watch Mary and Martha and find the answers to our own questions in living color.

Where is God when we stand at a graveside? Does He really care how we feel? He listens to our hearts, enters into our story. He comes when we call, and stands beside us, weeping with our broken hearts.

Is He near when I need Him? Will He help me? He calls out and does the impossible right before our eyes. Relationships beyond hope get second chances. New opportunities rise out of dreams laid to rest. Comfort and peace lift up the aching heart. And Martha and Mary’s brother walks out of his tomb in front of the assembled mourners– a story none of them will likely forget. Jesus does not do what they want Him to do, or even what they could reasonably expect Him to do, and it is easy for us to get bogged down there in our own frustration and confusion. This is where our perspectives and emotions wrestle with faith, and we get to decide whether we will trust in what we can understand… or believe what God says. I am glad the sisters’ story tells us the “Why?” of it– God’s larger purpose at work in their story. “…it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.” (verse 4) But I see how their relationship with Jesus is what makes them trust that He knows best. They know Him and His love for them, even when they don’t understand what He does.

Jesus tells Martha “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.” (verses 25-26)  It is the answer to her questions– the message of her story that speaks to all of us if we will be still and listen. There could be no better answer to the graveside questions than this: Death is no longer the end we have always feared, because God has come to rescue us.

Here at the beginning of our preparation for Easter, we can understand how Jesus “was deeply moved in spirit and troubled.” (verse 33). This is the crux of the matter, the very reason He has taken flesh and stepped down into our story. Jesus is facing our Curse, seeing it in all its strength and oppression; He is seeing it affect the people He loves and weeping for their sorrow; He is standing up in anger and doing something about it, because we can’t. This is only a skirmish, a foretaste, but the climax of the story is coming when Jesus will walk out of His own tomb and overcome Sin and Death once and for all. This is the larger purpose He is working out in the world, that stretches over all our smaller stories.

The question He asks of Martha (and any of us who stand by a grave) is ” Do you believe this?” (verse 26)

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“Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the one who takes refuge in him….The righteous cry out, and the Lord hears them; he delivers them from all their troubles. The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.”
(Psalm 34:8,17-18)

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“Because He lives
I can face tomorrow
Because He lives
Every fear is gone
I know He holds my life, my future, in His hands

Amen, Amen
I’m alive, I’m alive
Because He lives
Amen, Amen
Let my song join the one that never ends”
(Because He Lives– Amen, Matt Maher)

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Of Stepping Stones and Open Spaces

A friend remarked at the beginning of the week that she had taken down all the Christmas decorations already, because by the time the holiday is over she just wants to clean her house and be rid of the clutter. I feel the same way, only not about the tree and the ornaments. For months I have had the thought that my life was pressing in, getting smaller and more chaotic, and I seem to be constantly busy, even though I am accomplishing less. It’s the kind of sense that can run along underneath everything else, just a faint hum in the background that you can ignore most of the time, until you lay down at the end of the day, or sit still for a minute, and there it is– like the warning light on your dashboard that you really have to pay attention to eventually.

We sit around the dinner table on the first day of the year, as we always do, and share our hearts over dessert and coffee. Usually it’s one of the pastor-dads that sets the theme– something provocative like “How have you seen God working in your life over the past year?” and “What are some of your goals for the coming year?” It is a way to celebrate and connect as an extended family, a well-loved tradition that stirs up both laughter and tears in the sharing.  As we listen around the room to young adults reaching naturally into the next big thing, maybe I envy (just a little) that stage of life when goals and plans are more like stepping stones. But I see their hearts to hear God’s voice and to seek the plans He has for them, and see how that is what will last, long after they pass these milestones of rings and dates and diplomas.

So I share too about the hopes for the coming year, but inside there is still the insistent knocking that I can’t put into words yet, and I know it will take time to resolve and find a direction to go. No big changes in store, no visible major goals to reach, and yet sometimes the best goals are more internal than external, and sometimes the ways the spirit grows are more life-changing in the long run. It could be that the biggest question at the start of a New Year is What does God have in store for me, and am I prepared to walk through that door when it opens? Is my heart in the right place to even recognize His leading, out of the myriad of voices in this world? These kinds of answers only come in the quiet spaces, and I can hear Him knocking at the door.

So here at the beginning of a New Year, I will set to cleaning out the piled up places in closets and lists and thoughts. I will create uncluttered margin in life… to read the unexpected… to focus… to think, now that the busy-ness of the holiday season is stilled. Make time to listen to God’s priorities for me in the next twelve months. And I will not be quick to fill in the lines of my new calendar with projects and plans and other people’s ideas for my time. Because the Church-planter said “…I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God–this is your true and proper worship.” (Romans 12:1) I know I will live my best this year if I live in worship; we are always at our best when we are responding to the One who offered Himself as a sacrifice for us.

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“Oh what amazing love–
We need Your cleansing flood;
Jesus I come, Jesus I come.
In every broken place,
You are my righteousness;
Jesus I come, Jesus I come.
Thank You, Jesus;
Just as I am I come.
Hallelujah,
Oh what amazing love.”
(Jesus I Come, Elevation Worship)

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“I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death.” (Philippians 1:20)

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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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Dying to Run Well

With all this talk of what we believe, it might be easy to think that is all there is to living out our faith: just believe what is true and right and good, and off you go, running fast and straight. But Jesus said it clearly to anyone with ears to hear, that receiving His Words was only the first part of a process. “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.” (Matthew 7:24) We can listen and learn and accumulate understanding as if we are stockpiling treasure, but growth will not happen until our hearts and wills are engaged to put what we believe into practice– and this is where things get sticky. I heard a preacher say last week that “Transformation occurs when we bring truth to bear on our souls….[it] is an active engagement, not a passive by-product.” (Rob Reimer) Change from the inside out is more akin to battle, or the messy hard work of remodeling, or the labor pains of birth…actually, Paul says it is a death by execution: “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have nailed the passions and desires of their sinful nature to his cross and crucified them there.” (Galatians 5:24) 

It’s easy to skim over that sentence, make it symbolic and spiritual because it is hard to hear, in that matter-of-fact tone, and it is definitely not the kind of thing I want to write on my To-do list for today. The thing is, the passions and desires of my sinful nature live fully and messily in this everyday world, and we can pretty much guarantee they will not go quietly to an execution. There is no tidy way to go about this process, and Paul doesn’t really make it optional. It will take God’s radical interior makeover of my heart to make me want Jesus more than I want my happiness/comfort/convenience….to make me begin to shed those hindrances that so easily entangle a runner’s feet.

No question about it, putting what we believe into practice might be the hardest thing we ever do. Bending mind and will and emotion to conform to abstract standards that go against your very nature, no matter how lovely and true they are, will not feel like a good choice in the heat of the here-and-now. It will require battle gear of Faith’s shield and Scripture’s sword, determination to run this race well, and a steady focus on the end goal of pleasing your Father the King; it will require running this faith-race of life the way Jesus did…in complete trust of His Father’s love and Plan. “For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:2)

It is not a coincidence that Paul sandwiches his gory, earthy observation about the cost of living out our faith between detailed explanations of what it means to live in the power of the Holy Spirit. He knew that the only way we would ever have what it takes to put Self to death was by depending on our Divine Helper. He ends with this challenge: “If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit.” (Galatians 5:25) The very One who made us alive again and calls us to follow Him, also makes His home with us and enables us to run this race. If I believe that, and am willing to plant my feet on that bedrock of Truth to wrestle with my wild emotions and destructive thoughts till they bow in obedience to that Divine Power, Jesus promises to make it happen. Paul says that living in Jesus’ presence not only enables us to throw off the old ways of thinking, but also causes new habits to spring up: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control”  (Galatians 5:22-23)….Jesus’ own character traits taking the place of what has died, and enabling us to run the race like He did. Let’s just be careful not to confuse what is good with what is easy.

My free will, and His power and sovereignty, working together to produce transformation on the inside? It is Mystery, and it is Truth. This is way too big for my To-do list for today– but it is on God’s agenda for me, so the only question is how well I will cooperate. Lord, help me to grow in my understanding of You and to put it into practice, even when it means the death of Me and what I want. I want You more.

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“Work hard to show the results of your salvation, obeying God with deep reverence and fear.” (Philippians 2:12)

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 “The greatest burden we have to carry in life is self. The most difficult thing we have to manage is self. Our own daily living, our frames and feelings, our especial weaknesses and temptations, and our peculiar temperaments– our inward affairs of every kind– these are the things that perplex and worry us more than anything else, and that bring us oftenest into bondage and darkness….You must hand yourself…all over into the care and keeping of your God, and leave them there. He made you and therefore He understands you, and knows how to manage you, and you must trust Him to do it.” (Hannah Whitall Smith)

 

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Of Pearls and Building Blocks

What you believe matters most of all. It will affect the way you live, and the way you love, and the way you work, and the way you die. Just ask the little boy who is afraid to go to bed at night in the dark. Ask the mama who is sending her youngest off to college, and the woman who is giving up her career for health reasons. Ask the young adult wondering if there is someone else out there who wants to spend the rest of a life building a home together. Ask the wife sitting with her husband during chemo treatments. Ask all of us, in the stillness of our hearts if what we believe about ourselves and our experiences doesn’t make all the difference in the world. Because how we see life is how we will react to it, and what we think is who we are becoming. Beliefs are the building blocks that will make a life, and some of us don’t even see it until we turn around at the end, and wonder what we built.

The funny thing is that we pay so much attention to what is going on around us– what we are doing, and how we are feeling in the moment– and rarely spare a glance for the beliefs that drive us, underneath it all. The Wise King told his sons to figure that out first, before they wasted their whole lives with meaningless moments….to find solid faith-footing that could guide their steps: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.” (Proverbs 9:10) I guess desperation drives some of us, because when you are caught in a storm you start sorting through what you can hold onto, pretty quickly. And what good are beliefs that just fill your head and can’t anchor down Real Life when the winds howl and beat against your house? Maybe it’s okay to find yourself weak if you find out how sturdy God’s Words are when you lean hard on them. Like the Wise King says, “My son, do not lose sight of these— keep sound wisdom and discretion, and they will be life for your soul and adornment for your neck. Then you will walk on your way securely, and your foot will not stumble….for the Lord will be your confidence and will keep your foot from being caught.” (Proverbs 3:21-23, 26) And if we believe something less useful, the storm will show that too, and maybe there is a severe mercy there somewhere. Because we all believe something, and it will play itself out in our lives, even if it all falls to ruin. Honestly, often the biggest obstacle between what I know about God and living it out in the real world is Myself– thinking I can do it on my own, hanging onto old hurts and misconceptions, finding it hard to trust, my own needs/ fears/emotions drowning everything else out– and I know there are some building blocks that need to fall like sandcastles.

It seems we keep coming back to this one theme of knowing God and living out our faith, so far this year. Whether we are still in grade school or have been here for decades, this is something all Christ-followers need to know, that what we believe matters most in this life. “Yes, when you get serious about finding Me and want it more than anything else, I’ll make sure you won’t be disappointed.” (Jeremiah 29:13) So we keep on pursuing knowing God and His ways, learning to listen as if our lives depend on it, because in the end, they really do. This is the pearl of great price that is worth everything.

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“You can have as much of God as you want, and no more than you are willing to pay the price for.” (Rob Reimer)

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“Trust God from the bottom of your heart; don’t try to figure out everything on your own. Listen for God’s voice in everything you do, everywhere you go; He’s the one who will keep you on track.” (Proverbs 3:5-6)

 

 

 

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Where Feet May Fail

It’s hard to run some days, and that’s all there is to it. Some days it’s all you can do to stay on your feet, and every step is an effort. It’s okay on days like that to go slow, because any steps are better than none. It’s all right on those days if you don’t cover much ground, and if your legs feel like lead. The important thing is that you keep your eyes on Jesus, “the Champion who initiates and perfects our faith” (Hebrews 12:2). Just don’t wander off the path trying to make your heart feel better, or looking for your own solutions, or for an easier, wider trail. There is danger out there in the woods, and Darkness has a way of closing in before you realize it, and one of these days you’ll wake up lost and confused, wondering how you got there and wishing you hadn’t.

It happens on an ordinary day like this, when running is hard and an ordinary person like you or me takes her eyes off the end-goal. Nothing big or dramatic at the time, but one step leads to another, and in the long run it makes all the difference in this world– and in the Next. So keep your eyes on Jesus who loves you more than life, and take another step. It will not always be this difficult, I guarantee it, because the path is always changing and you are always growing, and taking the right step now will make the following one easier. Just do the next thing and do what is right. And lean hard on your strong Helper. “The LORD is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer, My God, my rock, in whom I take refuge; my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold. I call upon the LORD, who is worthy to be praised, and I am saved…” (Psalm 18:2-3)

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“You are my one desire,
You are the holy fire that burns in me;
The Lover of my Soul,
You don’t let go–
You’ve made Your home in me.
You are my everything,
All I need is in You.
And all I have,
All I am, is in You.
It’s in You.”
(My Everything, Jesus Culture)

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“You make Your saving help my shield, and Your right hand sustains me; Your help has made me great. You provide a broad path for my feet, so that my ankles do not give way.” (Psalm 18:35-36)

 

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The Most Important Thing for Women to Know

“I know all the right things in my head, but when it comes down to it, I am not really convinced God loves me.” She said it quietly across the table, almost hesitantly, as if afraid to say it out loud. But I understand, and have said it myself, that it is not His power or ability we doubt, so much as His heart. And it’s like we are all back in the Garden standing beneath a tree with the whispering in our heads…. Maybe God isn’t who He says He is… and maybe He is not really good… and what if His love is not something we can trust, after all? It is the place we are stuck, that one moment in history working itself out in our individual lives over and over again, and our experiences in this world confirm that true love is an iffy business, and trust is a risk. Even after we have been to the cross and have been re-created, we are often left with the lingering fear. Because knowing your sin and being forgiven is only a starting place in many ways, and feeling safe and truly loved is something different that might take a lifetime to gain. And we can explain all the practical ways to learn about God, but the only way for a woman to know for sure that she is loved, to sink that Truth deep into her heart, is to connect what she is learning about God to everyday life, put her theology into practice, till the old whispering lies have faded and she can hear a new voice saying, “For the Lord your God is living among you. He is a mighty savior. He will take delight in you with gladness. With his love, he will calm all your fears. He will rejoice over you with joyful songs.” (Zephaniah 3:17) 

We talked about Mary’s anointing of Jesus, this week in small group, the way she has become the example of lavish, unrestrained giving, holding nothing back in her adoration. What lies beneath her gift often goes unnoticed, because we (along with the disciples) get completely sidetracked by the value of her perfume.  But Jesus considered her a friend, knew her as well as he did any of the Twelve, knew her heart and her struggles, and the whole thing is really about relationship and what she believes. So we backtrack to discover how she gets to this dinner-time story, and we see her sitting at her brother’s bedside, watching him die… and Jesus ignoring her summons. We see her grieving at home when He finally comes asking for her. We hear her honest acknowledgement of bone-deep pain and loss: “…if you had been here, my brother would not have died. (John 11:32) Some struggles break you to your knees, and oddly enough, if you are looking for Truth, that is the best place to find it. “You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. (Jeremiah 29:13) It’s not so much a matter of looking in the right place as it is how much you want to find the answers; and in the wilderness– in the dark places of the soul– when your need is most desperate, there is nothing you want more. Mary is desperately searching for answers and she finds them in the Son of God standing right beside her, weeping. God’s Words echo down six hundred years with His promise: “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you! See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands…” (Isaiah 49:15-16)

So here at the dinner table, with the fragrance of incense filling the room, we find Mary at Jesus feet, like she was the first time we met her, and her sister Martha is still doing what she does best by serving everyone. But this time Mary comes in worship, and in complete confidence of Jesus’s love and acceptance of her unexpected outpouring. When she wrestled honestly with God’s right to make decisions for her life, and her complete inability to understand what He was doing or how this could possibly be for the best, it was in her relationship with Jesus that she found her answers. He was incomprehensibly Other than human, and still the close friend who sat and talked for hours at their dinner table. He was powerful enough to raise the dead, and still able to feel their pain. He had His eyes on an eternal Plan for the universe, and He heard His friends in Bethany asking for help. It was her sister Martha who said it straight out, in the midst of her own grief, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.” (John 11:27) And they stood together, those two sisters, and watched their brother walk out of his tomb, while their friend and Savior looked ahead to His own soon-coming fight with Death when He would forever settle that score and prove His love for us, just like God had promised. In this dinner-time story we see a woman who accepts God’s right to rule and trusts His love for her; she is living out her faith in a practical way by ministering to Jesus on this night. Before the week is over He will show the rest of us what God’s love looks like, in all its world-changing power. “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13) All our names, written forever on His palms as a sign of His love. See, the more we get to know God and see Him at work in our lives, the more we know His love, and the more we realize we can trust Him– and this is what every woman needs to know above all. God loves us…”He loves us, oh how He loves us”…this is Truth that will never fail.

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“This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins….And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment.” (1 John 4: 10, 16-18)

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“He is jealous for me,
Loves like a hurricane;
I am a tree
Bending beneath His wind and mercy…”
(David Crowder)

 

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