The Weight of Caring

As a child I learned that verse about “Casting all your cares on Jesus, because He cares for you.” (1 Peter 5:7) The repetition in the King James version made it kind of sing-song and easy to remember, and it was vaguely comforting, but it seemed too lightweight to handle life’s difficulties– just a general reminder that someone cared about what you were going through. Paul’s prescription for anxiety seemed much more practical for everyday life: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” (Philippians 4:5) And doesn’t everyone long for peace in return for worry?…the kind of peace that passes all our understanding of the present circumstances? I lived here and taught here and claimed the promises of Scripture for decades.

Until one day this year when it wasn’t enough. Not that it isn’t true, every word of it, but sometimes it isn’t about anxiety or fear so much as the growing weight of grief over situations that have no resolution, and the weariness of wrestling with hard circumstances in hope and praise and faith, day after day. ..the struggle to see truth, hold on to truth in this world, when nothing makes sense. When the heart grows heavy with sorrow till you feel like giving up, sometimes what you really need is Someone big enough to carry the burden for you, so you don’t have to any more.

And suddenly that old verse from the past came back to me in light of Easter. “Because He cares for you” takes on new layers of meaning when you are looking at the very rugged reality of a bloody cross and an abandoned tomb. From this vantage point, it is clear we are not talking about a bland platonic caring in the general sense. See, this is how much Jesus cares, that He comes down to us in fragile flesh, and lives amid our brokenness; that He weeps and laughs and eats with us; that He takes the weight of suffering and ugliness for all of us from Beginning to End so that He can make everything new. This is a love that is measured in suffering– one that embraces our own without hesitation or effort– a love that stands alone in its intensity. It is no coincidence that the Latin word for suffering is passio, from which we get our word, passion. Isaiah the Prophet described Jesus’ passionate love this way: “Surely He took up our pain and bore our suffering…..He was pierced for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on Him, and by His wounds we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:4-5) This is a God who cares about our emotions and our experiences intimately, and He is telling us to cast all our care on Him, because He can carry it for us.

So for all the harassed and distracted…the disillusioned and the disappointed…the tired of trying, and the waiting for answers…anyone who is overcome with the intensity of caring in this sin-broken world, there is this invitation to cast it all upon Jesus, into the care of the One who was broken by us and for us. And maybe in some mysterious way, when we feel overwhelmed by the brokenness of this world, we draw closer to the heart of Jesus–participate with Him somehow, and touch His suffering– this passion that is powerful enough to re-shape Creation. Perhaps that is what the Church-Planter meant when he proclaimed “I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.” (Philippians 3:10-11)

After a difficult year of uncertainty and anxiety and loss, here at the beginning of a new season, we can cast all our caring on this Savior who carries us, and just rest here in the light of Easter. And hope is pushing its way through to the surface, under the warm Spring rain, because the reality of Jesus’ resurrection is the answer to all those impossible situations we care about. Easter is only the beginning.

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This is grace: God joined us on the floor of this earth. God did not stay far from our pain. He did not judge it from a distance. He did not pity it from the other side of the universe. He became it.

KJ Ramsey, This Too Shall Last

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Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ.

2 Corinthians 1:3-5

Up Abraham’s Mountain

When Big-Brother James lays it out like he does, it is as plain as any road sign, and we’re all shaking our heads over how easy it is for us to lose sight of the simple Truth: faith and actions are entwined the way body and spirit are, and together they make up the life of a Christ-follower. Ignore either, and you are as lifeless as a corpse. It’s sad how in our sincere desire to be good we can detour off the path into wanting to be good enough or better than, until we find ourselves halfway up a useless tower with a hammer in our hands. It’s as if we’d never even heard the words of the ancient song, ” Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labor in vain…” (Psalm 127:1) And it’s just as likely that we will veer into a careless swamp of familiarity with Grace that lets us indulge our emotions, our desires, above obedience to God’s ways. James is warning us that both are the subtle bent of the Enemy. How tragically ironic that among the ranks of the gloriously Born Again there would be those who are walking dead and deceived.

No wonder Jesus can state unequivocally, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 7:21) That may sound narrow-minded to modern ears, but He is only stating the facts, that you can spout all kinds of knowledge about God and build ministries that impress people, and still be dead as a doornail inside. Obedience that springs from a trusting heart is the only proof-positive of genuine faith. It’s as simple as that, and the signs of Resurrection Life in a person are that obvious: “… every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit….Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.” (Matthew 7:17, 20) Big-Brother James challenges us to recognize fruit for what it is, and keep a close watch on our lives and on the Family of God in which we live. He warns, “Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom…”(James 2:12)

We might not be so surprised at the way real faith manifests itself, if we think back to the Beginning. Eve looked long at the beautiful fruit, and listened to what the Enemy whispered about it… let the doubts grow in her mind that maybe God was taking something good away from her, and maybe He did not have her best interests at heart, and maybe if she wanted to get what she desired she should reach out and take initiative, show herself strong and intelligent and capable of plotting her own course in life. She let emotion and desire grow large, and when she acted she revealed what she truly believed– what she was willing to stake her life on. But just because you stake your life on something doesn’t make it true, and even a woman made with God’s own hands can lose sight of His love. We’ve been following in her footsteps ever since, captive to our ancestry in both our living and our dying.

So James holds up heroes for us as examples of real faith; Abraham and Rahab both faced the same tangle of emotions that Eve had– the same strength of desire, the same confusion about God’s intentions. And like her, their choices also revealed what they truly believed, because they stepped out in blind obedience, trusting that His Words were true no matter what their circumstances were screaming. Abraham climbed up that mountain with his precious son and a bundle of wood because the God he knew told him to make the sacrifice. Rahab trusted a couple strangers to protect her family when the city fell because she believed in a God she did not know.

In their hearts, faith was both proven and strengthened by their choices to obey; in their actions, obedience was an offering of worship to God as Maker and Ruler. They declared Him powerful and just and righteous when they held onto His promises instead of their desires. They declared His glory when they valued Him over family and home and culture. They declared His right to rule by following when it didn’t make sense, by trusting the future to His plans. “And the scripture was fulfilled that says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,’ and he was called God’s friend.” (James 2:23)

And isn’t that what Jesus did for us in His suffering? He came to earth in order to obey God fully– in every confusing and painful circumstance, against every opposition, in spite of every human emotion He had. He trusted hard and said “Yet I want your will to be done, not mine.” (Mark 14:36) And He looked forward to our trusting obedience and the righteousness He was providing for us, and He called us friends who would follow His example. He proved once and for all that obedience is the best way– the only way– to demonstrate what we truly believe.

**For Abraham’s story, read Genesis 22; Rahab’s story is in Joshua 2.

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But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

Romans 5:8

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As I walk into the days to come
I will not forget what You have done
For you have supplied my every need
And Your presence is enough for meDoesn’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

Your Promises, Elevation Worship

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 take it easy on yourself, 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 go looking for your own solutions… or wish 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) He is right there beside you, before you, behind you, and He has already made a way through these circumstances for you.

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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

When to Stop Praying

Originally published on March 8, 2015.

I remember her standing there in her driveway, confessing to me with a little laugh and a shake of her head: “I’ve been fighting with God about something for a little while now, and I should know better….I know He’s going to win in the end.” My mother-in-law was seventy-two then, and I remember smiling with her in rueful acknowledgement of divine sovereignty and human emotions–the lesson that takes a lifetime to learn. I think of her often in my own storms, when it gets hard to be still and know that He is God. Even when you know all along Who is in charge and to Whom your heart will bow in the end, still the heart needs time to process, time to find new perspectives and lay down its natural reactions. These don’t come naturally, and there is wisdom in that admission– that prayer isn’t the suspending of our wills, but the bowing down of them. Not the denying of our emotions but the sharing of them in intimate relationship. And it is the willingness to go through the changing process that is our offering of worship to the King. As Paul wrote to the Romans “…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)

This is where prayer is so invaluable to us, because in that private space we can honestly pour out every thought and feeling without regard for how correct it is, or how mature, or how admirable.  It is the one safest place to be real: in the presence of the Person who made us, the One who went through death and back, for us. As long as our end goal is to please Him and do things His way, He is unfailingly patient with the process of getting us there. And as long as we are opening the door to Him in prayer, we are allowing Him the opportunity to interact with us, grow us, help us understand Him better, which is what He wants most of all.

When all the words have run out and the storm of emotion has run dry, there is left a quietness in His presence, and the comforting of His Spirit. The situation may not have changed at all, but the heart waits, knowing that He understands, and stands alongside. This is the gift of prayer. “And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:6)

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Practically then, I say, Pray as He did, until prayer makes you cease praying. Pray until prayer makes you forget your own wish, and leave it or merge it in God’s will.

Frederick Robertson

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Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.

1 Thessalonians 5:16-18

The Unforced Rhythms of Grace

It’s a shame, really, how quick we are to criticize Martha of Bethany for her busyness. Maybe it is because we feel the prick of conscience over our own crammed-full days, and the nagging sense that we are losing more important things in the rush. We can relate to her, and when Jesus tells Martha to stop fussing and come sit down with Him we feel the indictment in our own souls…know how long it has been since we have truly listened to Jesus’ words, let them sink in and take root…how hard it is for us to just enjoy His presence…how impossible it seems to find enough space and peace to hear the quiet voice of His Spirit.

But in our wry admission that we should probably learn to be more like sister Mary, we miss some important details in the story. Like the fact that Jesus’ tone of voice was probably not nearly as accusing as the one we level at ourselves. Do we really think that the Person who looked right at a woman caught in the act of adultery and refused to throw a stone at her– looked her in the face and said “…neither do I condemn you….Go now and leave your life of sin.” (John 8:11)— that this same Person would look at a woman working hard to serve a houseful of tired hungry guests and rebuke her harshly? We may not be able to hear His original tone of voice, but we do know the nature of the One speaking. We know that He loves Martha and her family. We know He will say just the right words in the right tone to reach through Martha’s frazzled state to her heart. Because that is Who He Is.

And let’s not miss the surprise and consternation of everyone in the room, at the fact that Jesus is inviting the women of the household to sit down with them as students and followers– something unheard of for a Teacher in the ancient Jewish culture. Martha was only voicing what every man there was already thinking about the impropriety of her sister, and Jesus took the opportunity to turn their cultural norms upside-down. This story is much more about Jesus valuing women and accepting them into the Kingdom as full equals to men, than it is about Him settling a domestic quarrel. He was always about the Father’s business, and still He calls us, as women, to lay down our To-Do lists and find our strength and hope in Him alone.

We can also lose sight of the fact that Martha was an admirable hostess. In a culture that valued hospitality and showing honor to guests, she was doing exactly what she had been taught to do, and doing it well. And there is every indication that she took Jesus up on His invitation to sit and learn along with the men, because it is she who verbalizes her faith in Jesus so powerfully beside the grave of her beloved brother: “I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask….I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.” (John 11:22, 27) When we next see her, she is still in the kitchen serving, right where she feels most comfortable, doing what she does best out of love and thankfulness to her Teacher and Lord. Knowing Jesus’ heart for people, we can be sure He took the time to praise her cooking and express His appreciation for her service. Martha has taken the time to listen and know Jesus, and now she knows herself better too. We might benefit from following her example.

We find Jesus speaking peace to our own rushed and stressed hearts in this story, letting us know that He values what we do, but He so much more values who we are and how we are growing. He calls us away from the expectations of others, and the cultural values by which we measure ourselves; He calls us into His freedom where the only standards are growing to be more like Him, and Grace covering all our shortfall. In His eyes what matters is my bearing the image of God in this world, and learning to know Him better each day. In His eyes, what matters is the way I serve Him in love, with the abilities He gave me…the way I come alongside others and help them to see Him better. These are the important things that will last forever– “the one thing worth being concerned about… that will not be taken away…” (Luke 10:42)

So He will continue to say to us, patiently, gently, as often as we need to hear it: “My dear…you are worried and upset over all these details!” (Luke 10:41) Stop trying to measure up and come and rest in My love.

**Title taken from Matthew 11:28-30 in The Message.

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Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.

Colossians 3:15-17

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To hear Your voice,
To call You friend,
To know Your thoughts–
How rare how beautiful.
You’re with me here;
I feel You breathing;
You’re closer than I thought was possible.
So I’ll rest right here with You.
So I’ll rest right here with You.

Rest, Kari Jobe

Trusting Love

Originally published on February 3, 2012.

If I had a nickel for every time someone told me “I have trust issues,” I would be rich right now. And besides, don’t we all, in one way or another? Especially after this last year of world-wide upheaval and craziness. When I look around at all the ways our broken hearts hurt each other…and the sting of rejection each of us has felt for not being Enough …and the sheer insistence on self-promotion and self-interest and self-wellbeing in every area of life, the real question is how any of our scarred, let-down, betrayed hearts could be healed enough to trust. And it is a vital question, because our very lives depend on it. I keep thinking of how Jesus pulled a little child close and told the disciples: “…unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:3). If it takes the innocence and inexperience of a small child, we are all of us coming much too late to the table.

But what if trust is not a matter of how much we know of life’s ugliness, but how well we know we are deeply loved? What if it is not about keeping a heart whole, but about giving up trying, and accepting the brokenness and the weakness as the reason to run to Someone Bigger? It is the humility and transparency of a child that brings us to the Kingdom; the utter unselfconsciousness of knowing our need and knowing that we belong to Someone who will take care of us. In the kingdom, trust equals surrender to the King, and it makes me think that often our trust issues are more a matter of how well we know HIm and what we believe about Him.

I often think of Amy Carmichael, a pastor’s kid in the mid-1800s, who grew up involved in ministry to the poor of Northern Ireland– a girl who knew the presence of God from childhood.  When she was 20 she heard the missionary pioneer Hudson Taylor (founder of China Inland Mission) speaking in England, and followed God’s call into missions work herself.  Not to China, but to India, where her heart was torn open at the discovery of young girls sold into prostitution in the Hindu temples. The Dohnavur Fellowship that she began there, soon became orphanage and school and home to eventually over a thousand children that she rescued, all of whom called her Amah (“mother”). It is an inspiring story, but what stands out about her most is the intimacy of her relationship with God and how it shaped and defined her life.

Amy was sickly and weak all her adult life, never married, a prolific writer from her bed where she was often confined, loving and self-giving, and brave as a lion when it came to rescuing a child who needed help.  She once said that missions work was “a chance to die”….to self, to comfort, to all but the love and life of the Savior.  And in that hot, dusty, hard place in southern India, she found the love of God a never-ending fountain of Living Water, enough to quench her own thirst and enough to heal the hurting children she loved.

Despite the poverty and disease and children bearing unthinkable things, Amy could say “…cruelty and wrong are not the greatest forces in the world. There is nothing eternal in them. Only love is eternal.” She devoted her life to pursuing her Savior and loving others as He had loved her. She saw the reckless love of God that leaves Heaven to find the lost sheep; she knew His heart, and could not say no when He said Go to far-away India to rescue the little ones sold into slavery. That same endless love runs to the ends of the earth for me, to redeem my life from the darkness. And I hear the Beloved Disciple John’s words: “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through Him.” (1 John 4:9)  How could we not trust a love like that?

Amy Carmichael spelled out faith like this: “…we trust all that the love of God does; all He gives, and all He does not give; all He says, and all He does not say.  To it all we say, by His loving enabling, I trust.  Let us be content with our Lord’s will, and tell Him so….The more we understand His love, the more we trust.” (Edges of His Ways, p.175) Giving up control to someone else is easy when that Someone loves you more than His own life, when you know Him well enough to put all your doubts to rest.

I choose to trust You today, Lord; help me to trust You more.  Not only what You bring to my doorstep, but also the things You say No to.  I trust that You are good and that You love me deeply, and that the things You give me are what I should have this day, no matter whether they seem happy or sad.  Even when things don’t make sense, I choose to say I trust You just because I know Your love.

**For more about Amy Carmichael, read A Chance to Die, by Elisabeth Elliot.

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I wait for You now
Like the desert waits for the rain;
Like a child at the end of the day
I know You’ll come through.
I trust what You say,
As a treasure no one can take;
Every word so steady and safe
You always come through.
And all You’ve ever shown
Is love that’s willing to go
To the ends of the earth for me.
And all I’ll ever need
Is who You are to me
This love that’s willing to reach
To the ends of the earth for me.

Coming Through, Kim Walker-Smith

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For this reason I bow my knees before the Father…that according to the riches of His glory He may grant you to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith– that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.  

Ephesians 3:14, 16-19

Worshiping Changes You

Originally published June 22, 2012.

I remember starting out on this lifestyle of worship all those years ago, and how in the long day of worship seminars with different speakers, this one thought planted itself deep and grew a harvest in our hearts: “Leading worship on Sunday morning is the culmination of a week of personal worship; your heart should find its way easily into God’s presence so that when you are in front of others you can take them along in the path you know well already.” It was valuable advice from a veteran lead-worshiper, and a perspective that changed who we were as people.

It is no great wonder that when we focus our hearts and minds on knowing God it tends to spring up in deep wells of praise and thankfulness. What we couldn’t predict at the time was how the spiritual practice of focus and giving thanks would affect the way we thought about life, and hardships, and personal purity…how worship would drown out depression and grumbling, and soak into every fear-filled corner…how the practice of living in God’s presence would bring purpose and beauty to the treadmill of the mundane and transform it all into sacred…and isn’t that the way all of us Christ-followers should live together? As worshipers focused on the One who matters most?

What if each of us took seriously the calling to be a worshiper, and learned to tread that path into the presence of God so easily that no matter where we were or who we were with, we could lead others along in the paths we know well already? That is what it means to be a people who know God and make Him known.

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In the silent times : seek God… In the painful times : praise God… In the harried times : hallow God… and in the terrible times : trust God. And at all times — at all times – Thank God.

Ann Voskamp

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Because Your love is better than life, my lips will glorify You. I will praise You as long as I live, and in Your name I will lift up my hands.

Psalm 63:3-4

Where Do We Go from Here?

If the difficulties of the past year have stripped away the comfortable veneer we wear– exposed what we actually value, what we actually depend on for well-being and security, and where we look to for deliverance– then the start of the new year begs us to consider what we will do with what we have learned. And my influence in the big wide world may be limited, but here in my heart I can choose to make a difference.

In the light of upheaval, my daily routines are thrown into sharper focus, and I find myself wanting to leave behind careless habits and mindless old grooves worn deep. As I step away from the lifestyle I took for granted, I can see how often I have done things to please others or to find comfort, and how slow I have been to learn wisdom. Difficult times have a way of shining a spotlight on just how flimsy and foolish is the shelter you are building, and how unreliable the foundation can be. As the calendar turns, I don’t know what this new year holds, but I want to know God better through His Word, and to build stronger… to pursue more wholeheartedly the things He values. There is freedom in a fresh start– whether it is a clean unwritten page in a planner, or the dawn of a new day in which to find His mercies poured out– and here within the boundaries of my heart I am free to change, to make better choices, and to grow.

This year I can choose to trust God more in what He gives and what He does not give. I can choose self-sacrifice, and generosity, and giving thanks in all things. I can choose above all to hope in His goodness, and to be awake to the transforming presence of His Spirit. The Church-planter’s words are ringing in my ears as he says “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) And if it is tempting to point fingers at all the institutions and individuals out there who have let us down in the past twelve months, then let us take responsibility to do better…be better…in our own circles in the months to come. Let us choose to turn our eyes on Jesus and what He is accomplishing through these difficulties, and let us rejoice in all the unexpected ways He provides for us, when we seek Him.

The Church-planter is laying it out plain as day for us….

Don’t just pretend to love others. Really love them. Hate what is wrong. Hold tightly to what is good. Love each other with genuine affection, and take delight in honoring each other. Never be lazy, but work hard and serve the Lord enthusiastically.  Rejoice in our confident hope. Be patient in trouble, and keep on praying. When God’s people are in need, be ready to help them. Always be eager to practice hospitality. Bless those who persecute you. Don’t curse them; pray that God will bless them. Be happy with those who are happy, and weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with each other. Don’t be too proud to enjoy the company of ordinary people. And don’t think you know it all!

Romans 12:9-16

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Scripture is filled with real people who had real failures, real struggles, real inadequacies, and real inabilities. And God shook the earth with them. For it is not so much from our strength that God draws, but from his own invincible might.

Scott Sauls

A Tale of Life-Changing Prayer

Originally published March 9, 2016.

Whenever I read Hannah’s story in the Bible, I pause to wonder over the fact that she gave up her sweet boy. After praying “year after year” for him (so the story goes), she finally promises to give him back if God will just hear her prayer for a child. It is reminiscent of the desperate promises that lead to tragedy in some of our best folk-tales, except this one seems to be told with joy and we hear her song of praise, get to see her leading the little boy to the Temple to live with old Eli, watch her making wee garments to take to him when she visits once a year and sees how much he has grown. I chose her words of faith as our own commitment when we dedicated our children: “I prayed for this child, and the Lord has granted me what I asked of him. So now I give him to the Lord. For his whole life he will be given over to the Lord.” (1 Samuel 1:27-28) And I meant it, but I always wondered how she could bear to leave Samuel there to travel back home, after waiting so long to hold him. I always thought how she must be a stronger woman than I am.

Once you get past the main attraction here, that God answered a weeping woman’s prayers with a miracle baby, other valuable features of the story come to light, the first of which is that it is not really her story at all, but the beginning of Samuel’s. He himself is writing down the story he must have heard dozens of times– probably once a year when his parents came to visit. (I have it on good authority that parents tend to tell and re-tell their favorite stories about their children…you know we all do it.) And he records it with good reason, in all its detail, because his mother’s struggle has shaped his life– poured the foundation for who he is and the role he will play in the nation of Israel.

The first years of Hannah’s marriage read like an ancient soap opera, with two wives and one good-hearted husband caught in the middle. One wife loved, but barren; a second-choice wife (and probably younger) having child after child, but all too conscious of where their husband’s affections lay. Not surprisingly, their home becomes the grounds for some pretty serious rivalry and drama. Hannah weeps and prays and fasts. The husband gives gifts and coaxes her with declarations of his love. The other wife taunts and shows off her pregnancies and her children, jabs at Hannah’s faith year after year. You can’t help but wonder why Hannah kept praying: she keeps going to the Temple to worship, keeps asking God and does not give up. On the surface it appears that when Eli finally notices her praying in a public place, he casts his favor with her, and God at last gives her what she wants. But the year after year of praying without answers is a key element in the story that we would not want to miss.

We can feel it with her, the monthly cycle of hoping and praying and being disappointed yet again. Every month watching others flourish while she waited on her own body to bear life. Month after month pouring out her heart’s desires and believing that Someone out there was listening and could help her, despite every visible circumstance to the contrary.  And I wonder how her prayers began to change as she wrestled. We only catch glimpses of what was happening in her heart: Certainly she prayed for a child to fill her arms…to affirm her womanhood…to bring joy to her life. Surely she prayed for a child to please her husband and validate his love for her. Perhaps she prayed for a child to silence the neighbors’ whispering tongues. To restore her honor. Year after year, the narrative says. Her persistence speaks loudly of her devotion to God and her determination not to turn elsewhere for answers, and in the shape of her prayers we hear how God met her in those wilderness years. “… for the Lord is a God who knows, and by Him deeds are weighed….He will guard the feet of his faithful servants….” (1 Samuel 2:3,9)

She kept on giving her pain and her longing and her dreams into God’s care, until finally she just laid it all down– gave up her ideas of what should happen and why, and said Not my will but Your purposes be accomplished in my life…This child will be from You and for You, and this miracle will be for Your glory. And Samuel did belong to the Lord from the moment he was born, dedicated to serve Him as the last of the judges and the first of the prophets– the one who would guide the great kings of Israel’s Golden Age. Both mother and child were overshadowed by the Holy Spirit so that Hannah could prophesy “My heart rejoices in the Lord; in the Lord my horn is lifted high….for I delight in Your deliverance.” (1 Samuel 2:1) 

Maybe this is how she could give up little Samuel to be trained in the House of the Lord– because she had already surrendered her life and her son into the Lord’s good purposes for them. A thousand years later, Jesus will describe the rightful and appropriate cost of obedience this way: “If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for My sake, you will save it.” (Luke 9:24) So Samuel begins his book here, with the faith and perseverance and worship of a strong woman who understood her purpose to know God.

This is where Hannah’s story intersects our own, because whatever we long for most, and whenever we labor long in prayer and wait for answers, we can know there is much more at stake than the object of our desire. We can be assured that God’s purposes are much larger than ours, and that He will allow us to wrestle with our emotions, and our circumstances, and His answers, until we are ready to surrender to His right to rule. And we can know for sure “that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose.” (Romans 8:28) 

Hannah understood that if she turned away, He would not be diminished in the least; it was her own everyday experiences that would be affected most by the blessing or loss of His presence. She declared her commitment to draw near to Him: “There is no one holy like the Lord; there is no one besides you; there is no Rock like our God.” (1 Samuel 2:2) Year after year she chose Him, and gained everything that mattered, for both her and for her little boy Samuel. May we be as strong and as faithful.

And we can hear Hannah joyfully singing, “He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap; He seats them with princes and has them inherit a throne of honor.” (1 Samuel 2:8)

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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

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He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.

Jim Elliot

Real People–Real Christmas

Coming into these final days before Christmas, maybe we are realizing the truth of what we’ve been telling ourselves all these years. That Christmas is not about the piles of gifts and the parties and the picture-perfect holiday homes and plates of goodies. That the true meaning of Christmas lies beyond the holiday trimmings– reaches down into the depths of collective history and collective longings of humankind, into the everyday dust of real place and time. We all know this in our heads, but it’s easy to say while we gather with friends and family in the comfort of our own living spaces, when the birth of the Savior can be one more blessing to add to our very rich lives.

This year when familiar traditions are suspended, and families are separated on purpose, the earthiness of the real Christmas story meets our very real needs. If there are no happy holiday gatherings, there is still a Child lying in a manger and angels singing the unending good news to the whole human race: “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people….a Savior has been born to you.” (Luke 2:10-11) God’s favor has been turned toward us, and our stories are bound up in His happy ending.

And there are families in quarantine, and loved ones in hospitals, and even the decked out stores are not very merry with shoppers. But there’s a Baby’s cry in the dark and a mother’s soft voice, and we hear God’s declaration: “’The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means ‘God with us’).” (Matthew 1:23) The One who created us all is right here, in the middle of real life, and we are not alone. In the middle of uncertainty and anxiety and grief this Christmas stand the rough-hewn timbers of stable and manger and cross, where God’s favor pours out in real life and death. Love and grace are not abstract sanitized words at all, but rugged real choices in the real world.

And maybe for the first time some of us have the chance to experience a very real Christmas, undistracted by the busy-ness and the glitter. Let go of the customs and comforts we hold dear and turn to the One who holds us. The prophet murmurs truth to our hearts about the everlasting God: “He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in His arms and carries them close to His heart; He gently leads those that have young….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. He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak.” (Isaiah 40:11, 28-29)

This is Christmas, that a very real God is with us in real life. The rest is just decoration.

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Preparing for Christmas means turning from the aches & worries and weariness of this world to focus on the One who came to be with us in it and save us from it.⠀
Even when life doesn’t look like we wanted it to—especially when life doesn’t look like we want it to—we can celebrate Christmas because we have a Messiah who came into this messy world to suffer on our behalf and secure the gift of eternal life.⠀

Lisa Appelo

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The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

John 1:14