Filling up Our Hungry Hearts

Here in the Autumn weeks when the trees are dropping leaves and the days are growing shorter, we return to old Truths around the table. And we are carrying new stories to tell, as if that changes everything, but isn’t it odd how we need to keep learning the same lessons over and over again? Somehow, we feel the need to keep holding up our changing circumstances for examination. Maybe we need to know for sure that the light of God’s truth is still shining there, no matter how much the jagged pieces of this broken world shift and turn. Maybe these hearts are just wounded enough that we are looking to belong somewhere safe. Whatever the reason, it is clear that we need to keep setting God’s promises in the center of everything, keep our eyes focused on who He is and what He says about life, so that our changing seasons have an anchoring point around which to spin.

It’s not really a matter of testing God’s faithfulness, because we know “His compassions never fail. They are new every morning.” (Lamentations 3:22-23). Every one of us would echo the Musician-King’s song: “Your love, Lord, reaches to the heavens, your faithfulness to the skies.” (Psalm 36:5) No, it’s our own hearts that need tested, need to ask continually, “Can I trust you in this?” like children wanting fresh assurance every night that there are no monsters under the bed and someone bigger will be within earshot.

But children grow up and forget the fear of monsters under the bed eventually, and there comes a time for hearts to grow up too. Worry doesn’t make us human, nor does it make us good. It just makes us tired and unhappy. I remember a song my grandma used to sing: “O soul, are you weary and troubled? No light in the darkness you see? There’s light for a look at the Savior, and life more abundant and free. Turn your eyes upon Jesus. Look full in His wonderful face, and the things of earth will grow strangely dim, in the light of His glory and grace.” (Helen Lemmel) And the more we look at Him with the innocent trust of a child, in every change of life, the more we are convinced of the deep truth that we are loved and we are safe in His care. In the wilderness season we are going through. In the great loss we are feeling. In the inadequacy that gnaws us for the hard things ahead. Jesus is right there, and He is patiently listening to our questions about life, and cries about today’s troubles. He keeps on reassuring us that the things we fear have no power over us any more, and He will remain by our side no matter what. And at some point we need to grasp onto the solid truth of that, leave fear and insecurity behind and grow up into Him who came to rescue us. For “He Himself bore our sins in His body on the tree, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. ‘By His stripes you are healed.'” (1 Peter 2:24)

Lord, let our broken hearts be healed in Your clear unchanging Light, that we may grow up in all things and rest in Your great promises.

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“Yes, my soul, find rest in God; my hope comes from Him. Truly He is my rock and my salvation; He is my fortress, I will not be shaken..”(Psalm 62:5-6)

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“It is possible, I dare to say, for those who will indeed draw on their Lord’s power for deliverance and victory, to live a life in which His promises are taken as they stand, and found to be true. It is possible to cast every care on Him, daily, and to be at peace amidst the pressure. It is possible to see the will of God in everything, and to find it…no longer a sigh, but a song….” (Handley Moule)

 

A Light in the Storm

I’ve sailed on the Sea of Galilee, in a big wooden boat. Only once, but it’s not the kind of thing you forget. I saw the boats on the shore and the thick heavy rope nets that the men still use in that deep blue water, heard the stories about how a storm gale can whip up and sweep down from the mountains suddenly, catching fishermen unawares. It brought the Bible stories to life, and I could easily imagine Peter and Andrew, James and John living and working in that sea basin, their lives intertwined with the natural forces around them. So when I read the story of the storm at night, I can fully sympathize with their fear and cries for help. And even their astonishment at Jesus’ power.

“Lord, save us! We’re going to drown!” (Matthew 8:25) was no hysterical reaction or irrational worry. It was based on the facts of their situation, the creaking timbers that shuddered and pitched beneath them, the dark skies above them, water pouring into the boat as it rolled beneath them…every sense they had was on high alert in a dangerous situation. They all knew men and boats that had been lost to those storms. And I am sure they had already done everything they knew to do, every trick they had up a seasoned fisherman’s sleeve, to no avail against the forces of nature. All they had to hold onto was hope in the Rabbi, who lay there taking a nap while the water sloshed up around him. Sleeping? At a time like this? Of course, He must have been exhausted after a long day of healing the crowds that needed Him. But His reaction to the storm was so markedly different from the rest of the men, and at first I shrug it off, because it’s easy to be calm if you know you have the power to fix something, and the helpless fishermen just need to hang in there, and they will soon be out of danger.

And then I realize two things back-to-back, and it’s like spotlights turning on in my head: the men must know He can do something too, otherwise they would not be scolding Jesus for sleeping when they needed help….and Jesus suggested this trip knowing full well that a storm would catch them on the way. Suddenly I am not quite so comfortable with the familiar Sunday School story of how Jesus can command the wind and the waves.

Because I am like the fishermen, caught in the wind and waves of many different situations, and all I have is the evidence of my senses, the life skills I have learned, the perspectives I have gained from experience– these are the tools I have to navigate the seas of my life. Sometimes I can go to bed at night thinking it was a day’s good work, and some nights I can barely sleep for the gnawing of anxiety and wondering where to go from here. And pressing on to learn more, do better, surrounding myself with the support of family and friends gives me a sense of doing what I can, encourages me that it’s all going to work out and I can persevere. Adding faith into the mix helps keeps the deep and the dark at bay, at least in the forefront of my thoughts. It’s a relief to know the Maker of Heaven and Earth personally, to be able to ask Him for help…and still, like the disciples, it is peace that I so often lack, even with Jesus by my side.

But there’s Jesus in the story, with the same human senses and skills and brain at His disposal, and it’s like He doesn’t even see the storm as a threat (or at least considers it not worth an uproar). He is utterly at peace in that boat, and when He speaks to the fishermen, it is not to impart any new knowledge, but to question their faith: “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?” (Mark 4:40) We miss the point entirely if we write it off as Jesus’ knowing more than we do in the storm. The implication is glaring, that what you know should inform your reactions. If you know God’s power over your world, and believe that He is with you and for you, then circumstances lose their power over you and you can rest peacefully. His reaction calls to mind the words of Isaiah the prophet: “You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on You, because he trusts in You. Trust in the Lord forever, for the Lord God is an everlasting rock.” (Isaiah 26:3-4) And suddenly this story isn’t just a nice encouragement about Jesus’ power to calm the storms of life– it’s commenting on my faith and how I react to storms.

Faith isn’t something to add into my skill set, as one more tool in my journey through life. Faith is a completely new perspective on the journey, a spiritual sense that sees past the evidence of my eyes and ears, and the data that informs my brain. Faith knows the presence and power of the Almighty One is more real than any storm, and therefore can rest in Him. It’s one of those huge truths that is maybe more sturdy and solid than I have been able to grasp before, a beam of light that urges me to leave behind shallow platitudes and plunge ahead into the depths of knowing Christ.

The Fishermen-turned-Disciples wonder to each other, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!” (Mark 4:41) They are understandably terrified, but what is perhaps more disturbing to us is the realization that the trip through the night was Jesus’ idea in the first place, in full knowledge of the storm that was coming. I would much rather that His power protect me from storms, guide my boat through safe places and peaceful harbors. Because surely His control should prevent chaos in my life. And yet He urges the boat on into the storm, because it is more important that we see His power and glory than it is that we be comfortable and safe. Why not, since He is in perfect control of the circumstances we face? I wonder how many times I have looked at a situation and called it bad and stressful, and failed to even see Jesus standing over it in authority? The Musician-King’s songs testify over and over, “The Lord is my light and my salvation— whom shall I fear?….Though an army besiege me, my heart will not fear; though war break out against me, even then I will be confident.” (Psalm 27:1,3) Worshiping Him brings His peace to our hearts, no matter how severe the storm is.

Lord, open our eyes to see Your power over our storms, and grant us the faith to rest patiently in Your care, knowing You will bring us safely to the other side.

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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.” (Isaiah 43:2)

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“You hear me when I call;
You are my morning song.
Though darkness fills the night,
It cannot hide the light;
Whom shall I fear?
You crush the enemy
Underneath my feet;
You are my sword and shield,
Though troubles linger still; 
Whom shall I fear?
I know who goes before me;
I know who stands behind;
The God of angel armies
Is always by my side.”
(Whom Shall I Fear, Chris Tomlin)

 

Hope-Full

I’m not sure what I was thinking when I chose the word at the beginning of the year and wrote down Hope in curving letters on the page. But I can say that when I asked God what He wanted to do in my life this year, the answer came back quietly, persistently: Hope. It seemed like a good way to begin the year: new beginnings and bright horizons and all that, so I hung it up where I could see it, to remind me. I wasn’t sure exactly what it meant, but surely, we of all people should be people of hope, because of our God who can do all things.

I was most definitely not thinking that it would be the one word we would be needing most. Hope. When you are facing one impossible thing after another, and the gale-winds just won’t stop blowing, hope seems like a ridiculously flimsy flag to wave in the air. Yet there it hangs like a banner flying brave across my shelves, every time I walk into the room– a silent reminder and a promise. And somehow, as days turn into weeks, turn into the months of a year, Hope is being redefined into a most sturdy anchor for the soul. Because hope has nothing to do with what is going on around us, and everything to do with what is happening inside of us. And the promise is not that we will get what we are longing for, but that we will get Himself, and He will be enough.  In Jesus, God fulfills all His promises; He comes to us, and says over and over again, “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified …for the Lord your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.” (Deuteronomy 31:6)

Sometimes it is really hard to know what to hope for, especially when the future seems so uncertain and the world is going crazy all around you. But this I do know: about the time you stop hanging onto the good things you want God to do for you, and start hanging onto Him alone, as the One who is mighty to save, you begin to notice what He is doing deep in your heart. Instead of grasping at straws for your own way out of the mess you are in, so you can survive, you just start taking one step at a time in the simple knowledge that God is walking with you and you will be okay whatever happens.  Hope is looking at what is going on around you, and believing there is a whole lot more that you cannot see. Hope is acting on that faith in everyday relationships and everyday decisions, because you know God is good and He is accomplishing something worthwhile.  Hope isn’t afraid to lean on others, or to admit that sometimes life hurts unbearably– it simply refuses to give up under the load. Hope knows that “Those who live in the shelter of the Most High will find rest in the shadow of the Almighty.” (Psalm 91:1) And is this not following in the footsteps of our Savior, being willing to bear intolerable things with childlike trust in the Father’s plan?

The Musician-King didn’t believe in pretending to be all right when he was not; he was an honest shepherd who loved God with all his might, and poured out his soul in his songs to the Lord: “Out of the depths I cry to you, Lord…hear my voice. Let your ears be attentive to my cry for mercy….I wait for the Lord, my whole being waits, and in His word I put my hope…” (Psalm 130:1-2, 5) When you finally want the Giver more than anything He can give–then you have found a hope you can hold onto. A thousand years later, the Church-Planter agreed, and added his own triumphant proof to the matter: “And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.” (Romans 5:5) This is the hope that God wants to give us– a certain-sure hope that reaches beyond the temporary happenings of this world and embraces the reality of the next. We have all the hope we need, because we have all of Him.

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“For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age,  while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ… (Titus 2:11-13)

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“Doesn’t matter what I feel
Doesn’t matter what I see
My hope will always be
In Your promises to me
Now I’m casting out all fear
For Your love has set me free
My hope will always be
In Your promises to me…
Nothing’s gonna stop the plans You’ve made
Nothing’s gonna take Your love away
You will always be more than enough for me.”
(Your Promises, Elevation Worship)

On Saying Yes to Difficult Things

We talk about acceptance of circumstances as if it were a polite invitation sent to the door, which you could consider, and to which you could give a thoughtful response. In reality, unlooked-for circumstances generally drop in like a pipe-bomb over your garden wall, blowing all your careful cultivation to bits. Any talk of acceptance then, becomes more a question of what you will do in the face of upheaval, and sometimes it feels like nothing more than surviving. But how you cope with both the bearable and the unbearable in life has life-changing consequences– it is shaping the very heart of you, whether you realize it or not.

Unfortunately, it’s usually a matter of trial and error, because in this world the uncertain and unexpected are going to crash in upon you again and again as you grow, and you will have to figure out what to do with those many things outside your circle of influence. Most of us struggle all our lives with acceptance of circumstances. Of what there is. Of what there is not. Of what may be. Of what has already been. I am pretty sure I still have a lot to learn on the subject, but I can at least look back and put words to what I’ve already tried and found wanting.

I know that acceptance is not the same as resignation, dull passivity to what cannot be escaped. You might be going through the motions on the outside, but inside your spirit will be crying out “in a dry and thirsty land where there is no water.” (Psalm 63:1) That way is a desert you could wander in for the rest of your journey, losing all sense of direction– losing hope. You can see the wilderness in a person’s eyes when she has given up to her circumstances.

Acceptance is not just a determination that rises to the occasion, a gritting of teeth resolved to do what must be done. There will always come a day when you cannot possibly be strong enough, good enough, smart enough to make it work. Self-sufficiency feels empowering and meaningful for awhile, but this world is enough to wear down the hardiest spirits, and when you run out of sheer will to live, how will you deal with the next thing then?

And acceptance is more than saying the right words and doing the right things on the outside. That way might feel like peace, seems like a path that will lead in the right direction. But you can cover up a pile of resentment and pain with a pretty-face mask; surely you know that the volcano will spew eventually, and the truth will out.

Since I have so far in life mostly succeeded in wrestling around with all the wrong ideas, these days I am trying to frame more positive words to describe what acceptance is. And I see how there is an acceptance that takes all circumstances as from the hands of a Creator who has every right to rule over what He has made, and every power to do it well. An acceptance that doubts neither the love nor the goodness of the One who does so, but looks upward with the innocent trust of a child. At some point you have to stop trying to figure out what you can do, and rest in Someone Else. Acceptance gives up the fight to be in charge, and bows to the Maker of heaven and earth…and it may be a surprising relief.

Not only does it set your soul at peace, to stop fighting everything, but it opens your heart and mind to new ways of doing things. Paul the Church Planter said it like this: “Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.” (Romans 12:2) I am used to hearing the importance of the first part of that verse– of changing and being changed– and until recently the last part just kind of slid on by. But don’t miss that the end result of transformation is to finally understand and accept God’s will as your own. This is the Kingdom of God becoming real in me, when what He wants done, gets done, “on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10), and the only way that happens is by the power of the Holy Spirit working in me.

Acceptance of God’s plans means letting go of my personal declaration of independence and capability; it means relinquishing my very-patriotic rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, for the sake of following Christ, wherever He leads. Acceptance is not anything I can muster up on my own, which kind of explains all the wrestling with it. Acceptance comes with the Holy Spirit’s powerful presence and my surrender to Him. And then I begin to see God’s plan at work in my life, and can recognize it for what it is….good and just the right thing for me, regardless of whether the circumstances make sense to my head. “And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:7) I can hear His whispers of love, and sense His guiding hand through the situation. It’s like finding riches in a secret place.

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“Those who live in the shelter of the Most High will find rest in the shadow of the Almighty. This I declare about the Lord: He alone is my refuge, my place of safety; He is my God, and I trust Him.” (Psalm 91:1-2)

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

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

And it’s worth it all just to know You more
You’ve done great things
Jesus, Your love never fails me
My soul will sing you have done great things

Thank You for the scars I bear
They declare that You are my healer
How could I have seen your strength
If You never showed me my weakness?

And it’s worth it all, just to know You more”
(Great Things, Elevation Worship)

 

The Hurricane of His Love

I remember my girl saying to me a long time ago, her face streaked with tears, that she wished God didn’t love her quite so much, because she was tired of all these lessons of growth. I grimaced in agreement. on the inside, because who hasn’t felt on occasion that following Jesus takes you to some really tough places? It is the nature of the clay to wish that the Potter would stop pounding and molding for awhile…just let you lie there in a peaceful immobile lump, doing whatever it is that clay does. The fallacy of course, is in thinking that we would be happier on our own, doing what we want, instead of what the King wants….and isn’t that exactly the false thinking that got Adam and Eve into this whole mess in the Beginning? It’s just as foolish as thinking that if we obey God and do all the right things, life will be simple and happy as a result. We just can’t seem to stop trying to figure out how to make life easier, better, more satisfying for ourselves without having to trust God’s plans for us. Guess it depends what you are looking for in the way of goodness.

CS Lewis pointed out: “It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak.”  While we are planting our feet firmly in the soil and looking for the things that make life here better, the Musician-King David writes simply,“The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing. He makes me lie down in green pastures, He leads me beside quiet waters, He refreshes my soul.” (Psalm 23:1-3a) David’s shepherding heart understood God’s sacrificial love for His sheep. He saw the faithfulness that is new every morning and isn’t afraid to do the hard things. He tasted for himself that the green grass of this world only goes so far, and what the king-who-has-everything needs most is to stand in the presence of God’s wild goodness; to live safe under the wings of the Almighty; to be washed clean in God’s ocean depths of forgiveness. We all need to come to the same conclusion about our heart’s desire, one way or another, if we are going to find peace with the unstoppable hurricane force of God’s love. One of King David’s musicians wrote his own confession this way: “Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” (Psalm 73:25-26) 

And if being in His care feels like we are ” bending beneath the weight of His wind and mercy” at times, we have His promise that we will make it through. “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.” (Isaiah 43:2) Life hurts for everyone, because this earth is damaged in a million cruel ways. The difference for us who follow the Shepherd is that over and over again God promises that He is with us and will not let us be destroyed in any way that matters. “I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” (Isaiah 41:10)….”“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)….”Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified…for the Lord your God goes with you; He will never leave you nor forsake you.” (Deuteronomy 31:6)

Francis Thompson’s classic poem The Hound of Heaven echoes the shepherd’s simple psalm, the way he pictures God chasing him relentlessly through all the days of his life, Love never giving up until his soul gives up running, and is Home and safe. It is both a comforting and a terrifying picture, depending on where you are, perhaps. And I have seen that God does not only run after the fleeing, and the wandering, but He also runs after the weak and faltering. “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me”— chasing me, pursuing me, hunting me– “all the days of my life,” because I belong to the Good Shepherd and He does not give up on any of His sheep, ever.

So on days when I can’t see anything clearly through the wind and the storm, if all I have is the faintest whisper… “find me”…that is enough of a prayer, because the One who leads me on, who is the Beginning and the End of all things, will also never stop following close behind with His wild Goodness.

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“When I said, ‘My foot is slipping,’ your unfailing love, Lord, supported me.
 When anxiety was great within me, Your consolation brought me joy.” (Psalm 94:18-19)

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“All which I took from thee, I did’st but take,
Not for thy harms,
But just that thou might’st seek it in my arms.
All which thy child’s mistake fancies as lost,
I have stored for thee at Home.” (The Hound of Heaven, Francis Thompson)

Follow the Leader

I don’t know about you, but my emotions are usually the first to respond to a situation, and the last to catch on to what is actually true.  That’s why it’s best not to let them lead.

Modern society would argue that point loudly, thanks to the very successful efforts of the psychology movement in the last sixty to seventy years, which convinced almost everyone that in order to find truth and meaning in this world we needed to look deep inside ourselves.  Consequently, individual experiences and emotions and perspectives were elevated to new heights, and even Christian thinking took on a Self-tinged, relativistic hue. Life is deeper and richer because of our emotions, and it seems only natural to follow where those powerful tides pull us, right?

But a long time ago a wise man told me that doing the right thing depends on choosing to do it, regardless of how you feel. Let reason and faith inform your will, and let will bend in surrender to God, and the emotions will trail along behind until they gradually fall in line. (Unfortunately, he neglected to mention how fiercely said emotions would make themselves known….or what a battle it would be to consistently choose what is right against the tide of feeling….and how wearing a mask to show the right things on the outside is not the same thing as truly choosing…but that is another story altogether.) He was correct at the root of it all. You have to know what voices to listen to, know what can lead you well, if you want a good outcome. The Wise King agrees that “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.” (Proverbs 9:10) It’s reverence and knowledge of God that lead us to wisdom.

My feelings about a thing do not determine whether it is right or wrong…or even if it is real. My feelings are not the best informant on the value of something, or the wisdom or health of a decision. Feelings are just one more faculty of being, given by the Creator so I could have relationship with Him and with the people around me. Feelings are an important part of who He made me to be, but like every other part, need to be re-shaped day by day by His Spirit living in me. I know that things never end well when unchecked emotions are leading the way. No matter what I am feeling, I find that choosing to give thanks reminds me where to look– which direction I am heading– as if gratitude were a compass on this Faith-journey. .And it’s always remarkable how when you are lost in a sea of emotions, it is trusting God and accepting what He gives you that brings clarity to thinking, and orders your world.  A sister-mentor reminds “No one receives the peace of God without giving thanks to God.” (Ann VosKamp)

The patterns of this world might call for us to follow our hearts, no matter in what winding ways they lead. But Jesus is calling us to take up our cross and follow Him, and His is the narrow way that leads us straight Home.

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“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)

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“Even when my strength is lost,
I’ll praise You.
Even when I have no song,
I’ll praise You.
Even when it’s hard to find the words–
Louder then I’ll sing Your praise…
I will only sing Your praise….

And my heart burns only for You–
You are all, You are all I want,
And my soul waits only for You;
And I will sing till the morning has come.”

(Even When It Hurts, Hillsong United)

The Only Answer that Satisfies


Seems like whenever you bring up the story of Job, everyone is quick to criticize his wife and his friends. Maybe it’s because the whole story is so disturbing to us, and it’s kind of a relief to be able to assign blame somewhere. The question of human suffering and how God is involved in it has plagued us since the beginning– the very fact that the book of Job was recorded attests to that, and the story does not come to the tidy conclusions we might wish for.  And we all struggle with knowing what to say when someone we care about is going through a hard time. So yeah, maybe we tend to single out the less complicated characters for their faults, so we don’t have to think about Job sitting in the ash heap.

The one woman who speaks in the story rarely even gets a vote of sympathy, despite the fact that she is the one who brought those seven sons and three daughters into the world (the ones that were tragically crushed in hurricane winds– what mother can stand such devastation?). Not to mention that she is suffering the loss of possessions and her husband’s health, right alongside him. She can be forgiven for being a little out of her mind. When she tells Job to “curse God and die” she is doing what the Enemy predicted they would do– and he was probably rubbing his hands together gleefully at the prospect of winning his wager. The Enemy felt sure that humans only worship God for what they can get out of Him, and when the blessings stop flowing, so does the sacrifice and praise. She kind of felt the same way. She wasn’t wishing her husband were dead, or abandoning him…only stating the obvious horror, that if God is displeased with you, you’re beyond help, so you may as well give up on serving Him and make a quick and merciful end to it at least.

But Job hangs on stubborn to his convictions, and chides her for losing faith: God is either worthy of praise or He is not, regardless of the circumstances. (To her credit, she sticks around through the whole miserable affair and then goes on to bear another ten children– sturdy woman that she is.) Enter Job’s friends, who are coming to sit with him in mourning, according to middle-eastern custom. We point to them as poor friends because they failed to comfort him. After all, we know what it feels like to have friends let us down when we are hurting and in need…and we often feel so awkward ourselves, in knowing how to comfort others. These guys believe in tough love, and take it as their duty to help get their failing friend back on track. In their theology, you reap what you sow, and it’s somewhere between naivety and arrogance to protest that you planted something different when the crops are standing right there in full bloom. They have no idea that they are promoting a religious variation on the Enemy’s theme. Their intentions are good, at least.

And here’s the interesting thing: we judge these people as lacking in sympathy and practical help, in a situation of horrendous loss, and end up missing the point as much as they do. Job’s grief is heart-rending, but it is God’s glory that is on trial, and Job is His chief witness. God criticizes the men not because they failed to comfort, but because they did not know Him the way Job did. Job was wrestling honestly with his experience; he was awash with raw emotion, and the God he served seemed distant… but he was not giving up. He still believed that God was ruling over all things, and worthy of worship, regardless of his experiences. Rightly then, God’s answer to Job’s suffering has nothing to do with explanations or comfort–He shows up personally to this wreck of a man sitting in the ashes with his neighbors.

And that is what we need to see in times of great pain, when our focus tends to narrow down, to channel all our energy into coping with our circumstances and feelings; what we really need is a bigger perspective. As much as we look for answers to all the why? questions, realistically speaking there is nothing that will take away the pain of our loss…not even replacing what was taken away. And as valuable as the comfort and sympathy of others is to us in those times, there is still no short-cut or remedy for grief except to go through it one day at a time.

God’s answer to suffering is to reveal His own power and wisdom and authority. If you can’t manage the entire created universe in all of its intricacy and splendor, then you simply are not qualified to handle the lives of men. And if you don’t understand God’s ways and thoughts and plans, then what makes you think you can judge His affairs? What we tend to lose sight of in the midst of life’s circumstances is that God and His glory are at the center of all things, and it is His business to rule all things well. If we worship Him, and love and serve one another through the temporary joys and sorrows of this world, that is plenty to keep us busy.

The book of Job is Theology 101: He is God and we are not. There is more to the world than what we can see. There are forces at work which we don’t understand. Our emotions and thoughts do not define what is true…or even real. The Creator’s care for all that He has made is sheer Grace. It was an answer big enough to make Job repent and worship, while the friends realized their presumption in deciding who was worthy of God’s blessing. And God Himself suggested that Job show them what grace looked like. “My servant Job will pray for you, and I will accept his prayer and not deal with you according to your folly.” (Job 42:8)

God’s answer to human suffering remains the same– that He is intimately and powerfully involved in His creation, and He is with us in our pain, redeeming all things for our good and His glory. It’s what our hurting hearts most desperately need to know. And if we have any doubts, we can look to the cross where He laid bare His heart and suffered for all of us….where He silenced the accusations of the Enemy once and for all with the illogic of grace.

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For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. 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 4:15-16)

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“There’s a place where mercy reigns
And never dies;
There’s a place where streams of grace
Flow deep and wide;
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)

Badge of Courage

As we talk about discontent and acceptance, and the faith that enables us to handle both well, I keep thinking about the circumstances in life that are outside our control. The things that refuse to bend to your influence, no matter how hard you try. Those unyielding parameters of life are hard to accept when they make life difficult or just plain miserable. And they tend to shape you. It can be anything from the color of your hair, to the strength of your body, to the family you were born into, or the consequences of choices made a long time ago….at some point you have to just say “it is what it is” (if only for the sake of your mental health) and figure out how to live in that place, no matter how it chafes. Paradoxically, in the very act of surrendering your will and accepting things you can not control, you often find the power to change yourself and your surroundings in unexpected ways.

It takes a special kind of courage to live one day after another in a place you’d rather not be. To persevere in countless small acts of service. To take up the cross that will put Self to death, and follow Jesus day in and day out for the span of your life. If we are honest, many of us would rather make a grand noble gesture and be done (and of course it takes courage to declare your faith in the face of an angry gun, or give your body in defense of a child). But there is a bravery that runs deeper, that is in for the long haul– the kind of unwavering faith that hangs in there, and doesn’t give up, in spite of the pain. Courage that can count the good gifts of the Creator, even through the tears of this world’s wounds, and can keep on believing that God “exists and that He rewards those who earnestly seek Him.” (Hebrews 11:6) And all the Spirit-breathed promises become very real and precious to the heart: “I have loved you with an everlasting love” (Jeremiah 31:3)…“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)…”Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet My unfailing love for you will not be shaken nor My covenant of peace be removed” (Isaiah 54:10)….Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” (Matthew 5:4)

Like Leah, who was overlooked for her beautiful lively younger sister and then married off to the eager suitor anyway, in an elaborate plot that involved swapping out brides and keeping the lights turned low. No one was happy about the outcome of that night, except for her father, who took care of both daughters at once and gained a hard-working son-in-law who also happened to be blessed by the Lord– handy fellow to have in the family. And although Leah may have rejoiced for the moment at the prospect of home and husband and position, still there remained the small fact that her husband was in love with her very own sister, who was everything Leah was not. Hard place for a young woman to live, day after day, but what else could she do? And in bending herself to those hard things, a beauty that is all her own begins to emerge.

I see unwanted Leah naming her sons as constant reminders of God’s presence in the midst of her unhappy marriage. I can imagine her finding joy in their baby smiles and warm sturdy bodies held close, taking comfort in the fact that God in heaven sees her and stoops to her need. It takes courage to stare down the circumstances you’ve been given and give thanks when your heart is broken; it takes both humility and strength to accept what is out of your control and focus on God’s provision for you in the wilderness. She may have been as delicate and weak as the gazelle for which she was named, but in longing for the love of a husband, Leah found the Love that never fails and became a mother of the tribes of Israel.

And when you’ve accepted where you are, and begin to see God’s provision for you there, gratitude bubbles up naturally from the person you are becoming. Giving thanks is one more act of bravery, a chin-lifting resolution that refuses to give in to either self-pity or despair, regardless of the way things look. Not because you are so tough or so capable, but because you know Who really moves the universe. I may feel helpless in the face of circumstances, but I can count on the God who says He is working all things together for good in my story. “I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in His word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen for the morning…” (Psalm 130:5-6) 

Gratitude is like a badge of courage to wear in the visible Everyday, proclaiming our hope and steadfast faith in the unseen Eternal. I don’t know what color gratitude is, but I see how it reflects the light of heaven’s glory.

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 “When trouble, restless fears, anxious fretfulness, strive to overpower the soul, our safety is in saying, ‘My God, I believe in Thy perfect goodness and wisdom and mercy. What Thou doest I cannot now understand; but I shall one day see it all plainly. Meanwhile I accept Thy will, whatever it may be, unquestioning, without reserve.’
There would be no restless disturbance, no sense of utter discomfort and discomposure in our souls, if we were quite free from any…opposition to God’s will. But we do struggle against it, we do resist; and so long as that resistance endures we cannot be at peace.” (H.L. Sidney Lear)

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“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 34:17-18)

The Season of Our (Holy) Discontent

You have to know why something isn’t working before you can fix it. And I know for myself at least, that it can take a little while of muddling around in unpleasant circumstances before I realize I need help. When I am hungry, I have no difficulty recognizing the symptoms and finding something to munch. When I get sleepy, and it’s hard to focus at my desk, there is always coffee, and a resolution to go to bed earlier tonight.  Why am I often so clueless then, when it comes to matters of heart and spirit?

Part of the problem is that inner disquiet is peddled on countless screens and glossy pages, multiplying to the senses that first lie of the Enemy. Didn’t Eve fall for the same line, that what the Creator gave was not enough?…That she was not enough?… And maybe the beautiful things she saw offered a better answer? Our discontent serves the Enemy well. I have found that too many images of beautiful homes and gardens and perfectly put-together wardrobes can wreak havoc in my spirit. And there are so many opinions on what a happy family looks like (or acts like, or does together, or eats for dinner)– it can make me wonder how come mine always seems to fall just a bit short. All those voices out there telling us women what will make life more meaningful, more healthy, more successful….just More. And before I realize, I am chasing the wind like Wise King Solomon: trying harder for something that will fill this restless longing.

But (as Eve found out a long time ago) trying harder to be Enough on my own never quite adds up. Like Solomon said, “All things are full of weariness; a man cannot utter it; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.” (Ecclesiastes 1:8) And at some point, I realize that the turmoil in my life comes from looking in all the wrong places for what ails my soul. It usually takes time for my brain to connect the dots of cause and effect– of choices and consequences– and how one turn led to another until I found myself on a path I never intended. Even the most well-intentioned hearts can find themselves in a season of restlessness and confusion. It’s not the worst place to be.

Ezekiel’s valley full of dry bones needed Spirit-breathed  words to live again, but first the people needed to get to the end of their resources. When they cried out “Our bones are dried up, and our hope has perished. We are completely cut off.” (Ezekiel 37:11) then they were​ ready for God’s miracle of new life. Uncomfortable as it is, dissatisfaction with the way things are can be the catalyst for change. Whatever your longings, there is only One who is large enough, lasting enough, satisfying enough to fill them. Whoever you wish you were, the woman God had in mind when He created you is just the right person to do what He has planned for you. His grace fills up the measure of “not enough” in all of us, so that He calls us “chosen people, holy and dearly loved” (Colossians 3:12)

Jesus told the woman coming to draw from the well, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst.” (John 4:13-14) But both she and Solomon had to walk down the dusty paths of their own trying, until they realized for themselves that what they were pursuing wasn’t working. The Wise King certainly found good in his discontentment, when he wrote, “Frustration is better than laughter, because a sad face is good for the heart. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning….” (Ecclesiastes 7:3-4) I suspect that each of us has to taste dissatisfaction with this world until we are sick of it, like a hunger pushing us to find the eternal food that truly satisfies; each of us has to come again and again to the realization that discontent with this world points us toward the reality of Eternity to come. And I do find that as I grow and experience this truth over and over again, it is easier to recognize soul hunger for what it is and come running for “the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” (John 6:33)

Whether we long to be loved, or to be valued…whether we are looking for purpose, or security, or joy…whether we yearn to overcome evil, or to find justice…whether we ache to be made whole, or to be freed from shame and guilt…the answer is the same. May all our longings drive us into Your arms, O Lord, and may we find our soul’s satisfaction in You.

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“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. It is good for a man to bear the yoke while he is young.” (Lamentations 3:25-27)

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“I tasted the world seen more than enough–
Its promises fleeting.
Of water and wine I emptied the cup,
And found myself wanting.
But there is a well that never runs dry;
The water of life, the blood of the vine…

‘Cause all I know is
Everything I have means nothing,
Jesus, if You’re not my one thing,
Everything I need right now.
All I need is You right now.”
(One Thing, Hillsong)

 

 

 

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)