Hidden Treasures in Hard Times

It is remarkable to me that the man in the Bible with the most healthy perspective on suffering also speaks the most about joy. It’s like Paul had some secret reservoir of joy that carried him through the hardship of being a pioneer messenger of the Cross. Or maybe he discovered joy along the way, because he had learned how to speak truth to himself in suffering. He would probably answer Yes to both ideas. When you read his letters to the early believers, and see how instruction gives way seamlessly to worship and thanks-giving, you catch a glimpse of the inner streams of joy that energized him. And is it any wonder that the bulk of what we call the New Testament comes from this man? It’s like God laid out Paul, his life and experiences and all that wisdom for us, and said “watch and learn, people.”

Lately I have been pondering the way we avoid hardship and pain at all costs. We chase happiness as persistently as our neighbors, even while nodding our heads that this world doesn’t satisfy, and all we really need is Jesus. Wouldn’t you think that people who follow the One called “man of suffering, and familiar with pain” (Isaiah 53:3) would be a little more comfortable with it themselves? Paul seemed to take hardship as a matter of course– and sure the ancient world was a difficult place to survive, but maybe we rationalize his perspective away too easily as a function of his surroundings, and assume that if he grew up in America he would have more modern expectations for his life. Have we lost some valuable perspectives along the way, in our all-out pursuit of happiness and prosperity?

I know well that the gap between what our heads believe and what our hearts want can spread impossibly wide, and it isn’t until the hard times come that you have to choose which direction to leap. And I have found myself holding on for dear life to the words of Scripture, not so much out of certainty in what I believed, as in the knowledge that if I let go of this faith there was nowhere else to turn…nothing else that rings this true. The father looking for his child’s healing was in the same white-knuckled place when he cried out, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24) Here is stripped-bare honesty, a man pushed to his limits, and though he does not have the eloquence to say it in theological terms, he is hanging onto the same truth the famous Church-Planter learned. Paul wrote it out this way: “for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:10). Clearly he had learned some valuable secret in his life-struggles, and although it sounds like an absolutely terrible marketing slogan for a new belief-system, it does ring out with the authority of experience. Here is a man who has learned that when you hang onto the Savior, you have everything you need.

And it is strange but true– when you run out of your own ability and throw yourself upon the mercy of God, suddenly what felt like giving up becomes a solid place to stand. Not the kind of thing you learn while lining up your ducks in neat rows. I wonder, if our lives were all comfortable safety, would we ever even realize the fatal gap between the theology we believe with our heads and the theology we live out in the everyday? And isn’t that discovery, and the opportunity to grow up into what we believe, totally worth it, in the long run? No wonder Paul could write “But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord…” (Philippians 3:7-8) Considering that the only thing that will last in this world is our life in Christ, that kind of Ah-ha moment can turn suffering into priceless gain.

I remember the exact day I realized that Paul wasn’t just saying all the right things, setting up ideals and principles for people to follow. It was a grasping-onto-straws kind of day, and one of those moments when you read a familiar passage of Scripture and suddenly the light turns on. Paul wrote “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation….I can do all this through Him who gives me strength.” (Philippians 4:12-13) Somehow it stepped right out of the flat impersonal page and into the mess of everyday life. I do know what it is to cry out for help, to need wisdom, need patience. I also know what it is to have a happy day when everything is running smoothly. The one constant in both situations is the presence of Jesus’ Spirit and His power at work in me. This I know because I have lived it. Paul’s secret to getting through any situation was to live through both good times and terrible times, experience them fully, and find God standing there with him in the middle of it all. And when you can say honestly, because it is tried-and-true, “The Lord is my shepherd; I have all that I need” (Psalm 23:1), there is joy.

See, Paul understood that when you are desperate and at the end of yourself, you are in exactly the right place to experience the riches of the Kingdom of God. The same inexorable grace that washes the rags of beggars clean drives nails into the hands of God, and the same persistent mercy that heals the outcast lepers trims away our self-indulgence so that we can fall headlong into the Everlasting Arms. I am slowly, slowly learning how big is the over-arching power of God and how consistent is His attention to detail. How good are His intentions toward me, how seriously He takes them, and how little I understand what He is doing. But what I need to know best is His heart, and that He has already given me, laid bare at the Cross. That I can trust.

A wise man once told me that trust and fear cannot live in the same place. If I want to know the secret of joy in suffering that Paul talked about, then all I need is to release my death-grip on the life I think I need, and accept the childlike life of trust that Jesus died to give me. Let my hands simply open.

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Because I AM is unbelievably with us, we can say even now: I am unbelievably safe.

Ann VosKamp

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Anyone who intends to come with Me has to let Me lead. You’re not in the driver’s seat; I am. Don’t run from suffering; embrace it. Follow Me and I’ll show you how. Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, My way, to finding yourself, your true self. What kind of deal is it to get everything you want but lose yourself? What could you ever trade your soul for?

Matthew 16:25 (The Message)

The Season of Our (Holy) Discontent

Originally published on May 19, 2017.

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 cultivated on countless screens and glossy pages, multiplying to the senses that first smooth line of the Enemy. Didn’t Eve fall for the same lie, that what the Creator gave was not enough?…That she was not enough?… And maybe the beautiful things she saw out there 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 outfits can wreak havoc in my spirit. And there are so many experts out there about 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 plain 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 wake up to recognize 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, crying out for rescue. Even the most well-intentioned hearts can find themselves in a season of restlessness and confusion. Actually, it’s not the worst place to be.

Ezekiel’s valley full of dry bones were waiting for 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 to the realization that discontentment with this world points us toward the satisfying 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 to Jesus,“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 understood…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’ve 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)

In Everything

Originally published May 26, 2013.

“That’s why He tells us to give thanks in everything,” she said. I knew her story, and it was on her face too, just then, as she thought it through. “Because He takes things away and it seems all wrong, but maybe you don’t really know….He gives things too, and you wouldn’t even have the one if it weren’t for the other.” She knew the secret of giving thanks in all things, and she was so right, that it wasn’t about what you could see in front of you, but Who was present with you. Not about what was happening now but what He was planning. Except that it is hard to keep in mind when the earth drops away and we can say with Job “What I always feared has happened to me. What I dreaded has come true.” (Job 3:25)

Maybe that’s why God gave us these promises of His good intentions, His own word to us “For I know the plans I have for you….”They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.” (Jeremiah 29:11) Spell it out for us, so we wouldn’t wonder what He was up to, remind us that “God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to His purpose for them.” (Romans 8:28) Truth to anchor into and hang all our weight on, when we just might fall over the edge completely. He says I can get through whatever comes, just because He is there with me. Paul knew it by firsthand experience in the jail cells and hiding places, the hunger and cold and scars on his back: “For I can do everything through Christ who gives me strength.” (Philippians 4:13)

In all the dark winding paths, as I walk toward the light, this thing I have learned is most necessary, to give thanks. Because when you acknowledge that All is Gift, you acknowledge your surrender to the Giver. And when you give thanks, you acknowledge that He is good and worth trusting. It’s the words themselves that matter, regardless of whether the heart is spilling out joy and the thanks are overflowing– or whether they are sheer act of will through teeth clenched with pain. Pick something and give thanks for it, willfully and intentionally, no matter how small, because everything around you is Gift and Grace. And then find another good gift, and another, as many as you can think of, until your heart lightens and hope sparks again.

The long-ago saints would have called it a discipline of the Christian life, perhaps. I only know it is necessary for survival, to keep heart and mind whole. Constant connection with the Light-giver. Constant dependence on the Maker. Constant recognition that He is good, regardless of the circumstances. He wants us to give thanks in everything because in everything He is there, and in everything He is working for our good, and in everything He is accomplishing His purposes. I can trust this and be thankful.

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“When you are a believer — and you stop counting blessings? It’s like blindfolding yourself and wondering why everything’s black.” (Ann VosKamp)

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“I may be weak
but Your spirit’s strong in me;
My flesh may fail
My God you never will.” (Give Me Faith, Elevation Worship)

When You Need an Eye Exam

Originally published December 8, 2017.

This lined page lays on my desk looking back at me, and I ought to be writing on it every day, enumerating the things I am thankful for. Our small group returns to that discipline of heart and mind periodically, to remind ourselves Whose we are, and where everything comes from. It’s like re-orienting a compass, aligning our hearts to the fixed poles of truth that can guide our steps, our thoughts, our behavior. No question about it– we live better as thankful people.

The list is filling up slowly right now, but not because of fewer gifts. My head knows that All is Gift– that is the very definition of the grace that we wear, like a label on our being, both nametag and crown for someone who walks in the footsteps of Christ. No, the gifts are many.

But seeing people you care about go through impossibly hard situations strains the eyesight…it’s just hard to see the right things, and recognize God’s handiwork. Beautiful strong women battle addiction and disease, and weary young mamas clutch onto the ends of ropes, and marriages fade and wither in the harsh winds of neglect, and families struggle to take care of the sick, and young believers struggle to stay the course….and you can look at enough loneliness and heartache and pain and injustice until it’s all you can see at the end of the day. It’s my eyesight that is weak, focusing on the things closest to me and losing sight of the bigger picture. Apparently it is a common malady, because even Paul wrote to encourage his friends: “…our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” (2 Corinthians 4:18) It’s like God’s truth is corrective lenses for the eyes of the soul. Because life here may be eye-catching and attention-grabbing, but it is also passing away, and focusing on my feet as I walk can make me impossibly myopic, in every sense of the word.

When your eyesight is failing, that’s where giving thanks becomes more an exercise of the will, just because He says so. Paul reminds us, “…give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” (1 Thessalonians 5:18) He balances it carefully on top of that tall stack of high ideals, as if the first two weren’t quite enough: “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances….” That’s what God wants from us who follow His Son, and I know there are people who scoff at the seeming-impossible, but the Spirit who makes all things possible is alive and well in me, and He says this is what real life looks like. It seems clear that when I fix my eyes on Him and what He is doing, both joy and thankfulness will abound in His company.

So I reach out my mind to choose what He says over what I see; I reach out my words to tell Him what hurts and that I trust Him to take care of it in the best way; I reach out my heart to say Thank You, Thank You for all the undeserved blessings of this day. And this is the slowly unfolding miracle, that gratitude rises anew.

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I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which He has called you, the riches of His glorious inheritance in His holy people, and His incomparably great power for us who believe.

Ephesians 1:18-19

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What you think you can’t handle — might actually be God handing you a gift.  And I think of everything I have chafed against and railed about and howled to the heavens and who am I to know what is best or not — but when you bow and surrender to the sovereignty of God then you are in the posture to receive all as a gift.

Ann VosKamp

When It’s Hard to Give Thanks

Originally published on April 7, 2014.

Joy is the particular province of the broken-hearted. It sounds contradictory, but it is one more paradox of the Kingdom of God, in which He turns everything we are accustomed to upside-down…or maybe it is Right-side-up, after all.

Jesus said it to the crowds gathered on the hillsides: “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule. You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.” (Matthew 5:3-4, The Message) This is a joy that comes in the face of loss, when you go looking for Something More than this world, and find God’s presence. It is completely counter-intuitive (and utterly true) that those who suffer the most can find the deepest joy, because their very loss is an unexpected opportunity to discover the riches of God’s provision.

Joy shines brightest in people who are struggling to survive in one way or another, who face silence and uncertainty and grief, and realize that there is still Someone close who whispers words of comfort to the soul and does not sleep, and He is Enough, after all. It is the secret the itinerant Church-planter Paul learned, amid the dangers of traveling over ten thousand miles through the ancient civilized world in the course of his adult life — often bone-weary, in constant danger, harried and pursued, driven out of town and stoned and threatened. “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through Him who gives me strength.” (Philippians 4:12-13) When all my supply runs out and I am entirely dependent on God’s, then I am coming to the heart of what it means to have a relationship with The Almighty. “The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food at the proper time. You open your hand  and satisfy the desires of every living thing.” (Psalm 145:15-16) 

It is easy to celebrate and give thanks when things are going well for us, and of course God delights in hearing our enjoyment of His blessings. But if we wait until we feel happy to count our blessings then aren’t we only putting a label on our response to the circumstances? Anyone can look at the sun and say it is a good thing it is shining; may as well look at a cloudy day and observe that we don’t like the rain. When the needy and the grieving look at their world and choose hard to praise God, to give thanks for His grace and kindness to them regardless of painful circumstances, they are bowing to His rule, giving a sacrifice that costs something. God holds that gift precious, and joy kindles and endures in the offering. This is beyond response to circumstances; this is the obedience and surrender and trust of a genuine Christ-follower.

In the face of any grief there is always a new morning, and the world all around, shelter and food and friends, and the small kindnesses of others– unaccountable blessings un-looked for, and unceasing. “I lie down and sleep; I wake again, because the LORD sustains me.” (Psalm 3:5) Accepting those small things with the simplicity of a child, choosing to give thanks (because even they are grace undeserved) gives Him our undivided attention– opens the door to God’s loving presence in all the seasons of life. The Giver is always worthy of our praise, and we can keep on counting all the evidence of His love.

God doesn’t avoid or ignore pain. He sings a louder song over it. And He invites His hurting people to sing with Him.

Aubrey Sampson, THe Louder Song

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“Therefore, let us offer through Jesus a continual sacrifice of praise to God, proclaiming our allegiance to His name. And don’t forget to do good and to share with those in need. These are the sacrifices that please God.” (Hebrews 13:15-16)

New Every Day

Somehow, counting out these blessings each day has a vulnerable feel to it. How many good things does the heart need, to be able to call it a happy day? Who am I depending on for my good, really? What do I actually believe about a sovereign God? And how easily a harsh word or a deep hurt or a lingering anxiety overwhelms any number of blessings. Even this sobering freedom that I get to choose how my heart is growing– I can respond to any situation with a thankful heart, or not, and it is sad how often my first instinctive reaction is something other than gratitude. No question about it, when we consciously place ourselves in the radiance of God’s presence, we can see more clearly the gap between what we believe and what we live.

Bending my will to this spiritual discipline of gratitude keeps peeling away the layers of self-sufficiency and wish-to-control, and as one day’s list gives way to the blank page of the next, it’s remarkable how much giving thanks feels like trust. My heart can still stutter hard, knowing that provision for today does not guarantee the same for tomorrow. The unknown can loom large in the night, and problems take on nightmare quality under the lens of What If. It is here that I have to choose again…. Can I trust the Grace that was enough for today to be big enough for tomorrow’s uncertainties? And it’s like I can hear Jesus saying, “…do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” (Matthew 6:34) I get that there’s an assurance of troubles, and it makes good sense not to spend your worry before it’s due, but this is hardly encouraging news for wannabe-thankfuls. I have to back up and read over and again the most important part of Jesus’ sentence: “…seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow…” (Matthew 6:33) My focus on living as a Christ-follower keeps me living in the present under His care. My thankfulness for the great gift of salvation and trust in the Father’s goodness gives my heart peace.

So it is both what I desire and what God provides that is guarding today and tomorrow. And I can see how when I want His presence more than anything else, these daily blessings are like manna, everyday evidence that He is here with me. I pick up each one and give thanks, believing that it will be enough for whatever I am facing today. And tomorrow will have its own simple graces, along with whatever troubles may come. I can trust Him in this. Each day Jesus promises to me again, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9)

The prophet Jeremiah saw it clearly: “Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for His compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness.” (Lamentations 3:22-23) God’s gifted goodness is fresh and fully abundant each morning as I rise. And His faithfulness ensures enough for all the days to come. So I choose yet again to trust, and I walk through another day with eyes wide open, looking forall the ways my Father loves me.

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The Lord upholds all who fall and lifts up all who are bowed down. The eyes of all look to You, and you give them their food at the proper time. You open Your hand and satisfy the desires of every living thing. The Lord is righteous in all His ways and faithful in all He does.

Psalm 145:14-17

We have no idea what it is that God is saving us from every single day we wake up with breath.

Shelly Miller

Polite Lepers and the Power of Choosing Happiness

Originally published November 15, 2017.

One of my favorite Bible stories in Sunday School when I was a child was the ten lepers who call out to Jesus to have mercy on them; He tells them to go to the Temple to show the priests they were healed and off they run, eager to make the proper sacrifices so that they could rejoin their families and get their lives back. But one of them turns around and runs back to Jesus to say thank you. I can still remember that line of men strung out across the flannelgraph board, their colorful robes flapping around their legs, and that one figure kneeling at the feet of Jesus, his hands and face turned upwards in worship. The story definitely has a strong visual appeal, and it probably resonates with children everywhere who are being taught polite manners: even Jesus thinks it is important that people say thank you!

Now that I am older, other aspects of the story intrigue me though, like the fact that all were healed, regardless of whether they said thanks or not. God’s mercy was lavish and free…no strings attached. And the fact that the man who came back was a foreigner is striking, because it is probably the real reason for his gratitude. The Jews were used to being God’s special people, and it made sense to them, both that God would heal them and that the Temple priest was the one who would declare them clean. The Samaritan though, was fully aware of his own unworthiness to be touched by God, and knew that he was not welcome to offer his gifts of thankfulness in the Temple. He saw clearly that the healing was at Jesus’ command, and returned to give thanks where it was due; it was his faith that Jesus was commending. All ten were healed of their skin condition, but one came back to kneel at Jesus’ feet, and had his heart healed as well. Obviously, the lesson for us is much larger than having nice manners.

I used to have this crazy poster on my fridge that I printed out, mostly because I needed to think about the words every day, in order to wrap my brain around them: “Everyone gets to decide how happy they want to be…because everyone gets to decide how grateful they are willing to be.” (Ann VosKamp)”

Everyone gets to decide how happy they want to be? Even the lepers and the lonely?…. all the ones that get stuck in situations beyond their control? And what if there is no family to run home to, and the healing doesn’t come? That’s the hard ceiling on free will, finding out that in so many ways you are not actually free, and have no choices in the matter. And who in this life gets to decide on a quantity of happiness, as if they were window shopping in a mall? Isn’t everyone allotted some random measure of happiness in this life, and some people are just more blessed than others? There is an inequity of circumstances that we all have learned to put up with, ever since we were toddlers and discovered the painful truth that we can’t always have what someone else has. And right about that same time we laid the responsibility of our happiness on the shoulders of circumstance, let it roll on the unpredictable winds of fortune. I see how we often live on that thin knife-edge, balanced between hope that things will go our way, and fear that everything will crash down around our ears– can see how we lean toward worry or toward control, trying to manage it all. And some of us just give up on the trying, and do whatever we can to pretend everything is going to work out fine. The world we live in makes no sense of the first part of that sentence.

But the truth of the second part skewers through the uncertainty of that first bit, anchoring it firmly. “Everyone gets to decide how happy they want to be… because everyone gets to decide how grateful they are willing to be.” (Ann VosKamp) And I know this spiritual sister is speaking truth, even though my heart still struggles at times to put it into practice. Because gratitude is precisely what we are free to choose– or not– in response to the circumstances we are given, and the way we respond shows what is in our hearts toward the Giver.

In his letters to the early churches, Paul writes it over and over again, rings out the insistent call: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.” (Philippians 4:4) He hands out this command boldly, as the standard for believers, regardless of their circumstances. And given the circumstances of his own life, we can surmise that Paul was no rosy idealist about life; he had no illusions about how hard it could be to hold onto hope or contentment or joy. His answer to the hurting, to the lonely, to the failing and the fallen is the same: Rejoice in the One who loves you and will never leave you.

Just before the story of the lepers, Jesus’ followers ask Him how to increase their faith. I wonder if the story of the thankful man surprised them at all. The connection between faith and thanksgiving is probably not one that we would make on our own, yet it runs over and over through the Scriptures: thankfulness is an act of obedience and faith, the humble offering of a heart that recognizes its Maker and Healer. And it is thankfulness that enables us to persevere in faith through whatever comes. This Savior who answers our cries for mercy is the answer to all the hurts of this world, and because of His presence we can always rejoice, can always give thanks, no matter how hard our faith is tested.

But it’s a choice and we have to be willing to submit to what He has given this day, open our hands for what He supplies and be content there. Paul’s words stand firm: “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.” (2 Corinthians 4:8-9) The only certainty in this world is suffering; all else is Grace, and undeserved.

So maybe happiness is really up to me and I do get to decide, because while the circumstances are not in my control, my response to them is, and gratitude is always the best option. Choose to see Grace? Be willing to acknowledge the Giver’s goodness and provision in the midst of circumstances, and find happiness in His presence? I get to decide.

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Whatever happens to me each day is my daily bread, provided I do not refuse to take it from Thy hand and to feed upon it.

Francois de la Mothe Fenelon

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Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is….be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Ephesians 5:15-17, 19-20

Miracles Await

I keep hearing people say how having the ordinary stripped away has made them realize what is truly important in life– cleared their vision, so to speak, and given them a new appreciation for the relationships that connect them. Having the world turned upside-down has also called many of us out of our comfort zones. No more daily commute, familiar office space, stores and gyms and running kids around– the routines that alternately bore or frustrate us, and provide the structure in our lives. It’s funny how the very things that can drive us crazy can be the security we cling to. Laying down our day planners, and trusting God to supply our needs, and spending evenings at home with our families may be a whole new adventure for many of us, and I wonder if it might not be just what we need right now.

Because there’s nothing like losing what you take for granted to make you appreciate it. It’s something our mothers knew very well, and used to their advantage when we were young. I guess somewhere in the growing up we forgot how easily things can be taken from us, and how useful are those lessons. So we live here in this strange season of change learning to be thankful all over again, remembering that Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. (James 1:17) We have fresh eyes to see all the little things that matter, and maybe even have the time to enjoy them. And this week dozens of homes are focusing on the good things, writing them down on refrigerator lists and journals and scraps of paper– reminding ourselves that all is grace, and there is a Father who loves us. Regardless of our circumstances or our feelings, we can give thanks because of Who He Is and what He has done for us. This is the miracle of Grace, that gratitude can flourish under any conditions. It is our offering of worship… our declaration of belonging to Him… our defense against the darkness.

The Church-planter Paul assures us that this one awakening to gratitude can lead us into many good places. He writes joyfully, If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but gave Him up for us all—how will He not also, along with Him, graciously give us all things? (Romans 8:31-32) Opening our eyes to be amazed at God’s overflowing provision opens our hearts to trust Him. Practicing gratitude as a spiritual discipline leads us to depend on Him instead of ourselves. Saying thanks invites the Giver into the situation. And when we acknowledge His right to be there, in the middle of whatever is happening, it allows Him to work with His great power to accomplish His plans there, as well. This is how we welcome the Almighty into our Everyday, by seeing His ever-presence and saying thank you.

And who knows where these small steps of obedience will lead us?

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I have wondered how often my refusal to obey, my hesitancy to go, or my action altered by my fear has kept the impossible impossible. How many opportunities have I missed to witness the miraculous because I didn’t listen or wouldn’t obey?

Kristen Welch

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And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with Him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages He might show the incomparable riches of His grace, expressed in His kindness to us in Christ Jesus.

Ephesians 2:6-7

Prying My Fingers Loose

Originally published June 25, 2018.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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He who did not spare His own Son, but gave Him up for us all—how will He not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?

Romans 8:32

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

Shelly Miller

On Choosing Celebration and Finding Joy

Originally published April 21, 2012.

I am reading through Paul’s letter to the Philippians at night, in a thick hardbound edition of The Message.  I love the way Eugene Peterson paraphrases Paul’s letters in fresh energetic language that jumps off the page with the sheer force of the writer’s personality.  I picture Paul a lot that way: colorful, energetic, passionate  and driven about his message to the point of being offensive at times….tact was clearly not his strong suit.  But then, when you are an itinerant preacher spreading the good news of salvation to the bulk of the civilized world in the first century, there are more pressing concerns than being “nice.”

I have been parked in chapter 4 for the past few nights.  The middle of that chapter is one of my very favorite “how to live” passages of Scripture anyway, but this week I have been captivated by the way Peterson phrases it: “Celebrate God all day, every day. I mean, revel in him! “  I can picture PauI leaning forward, eyes alight.  His is the voice of experience– in a life without any of the comforts we prefer on a daily basis, he has discovered an ever-flowing fountain of joy, and urges his readers to search it out. Revel in God and there will be no more room for self-pity, or despair, or even run-of-the-mill grumpiness on general principles.  Celebrate the infinite God and you’ll never run out of joy, never come to the end of Him.

We are used to following our feelings, paying attention to them and letting them move us through life…it is the pattern of this world that we have conformed to since birth.  Has it never occurred to us that a woman’s hurt feelings are what got us into this mess to begin with?  And the more we follow our feelings the more mixed up our minds get.  What a surprise to Self to discover that God is far more concerned with our obedience than with our comfort.

No wonder most of Scripture’s practical how-to passages are teaching us how to stop listening to the feelings of Self and instead listen to the Spirit of God, be transformed by the renewing of the mind.  Think first, choose how to respond, then act in a way that pleases God, and the feelings will follow.

“Don’t fret or worry. Instead of worrying, pray. Let petitions and praises shape your worries into prayers, letting God know your concerns.  Before you know it, a sense of God’s wholeness, everything coming together for good, will come and settle you down. It’s wonderful what happens when Christ displaces worry at the center of your life.” 

Philippians 4:6-7

I come back to this over and over, transfixed by that last line.  When I follow my feelings– focus on them and act out of them– I am putting them at the center of my life, making them an idol, letting them control me.  Worry?  Discouragement?  Fear?  Anger?  No good can come from following where they lead.

Choose to do this instead, Paul says… choose to offer up those feelings to the One who made them and put Him in the center of your life where He belongs.  Do this… choose this…it’s an act of the will, an act of obedience.  Let your mind be transformed by Jesus and lead you to what is right, and let the feelings tag along behind.  Paul even leaves me pointers on what to think about if I want a transformed mind– if I want to follow Christ instead of these tyrants of emotion: “Summing it all up, friends, I’d say you’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious – the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse.” (Philippians 4:8)

Simply put, I live best when I fill my mind with God’s truth… all He has done for me, all that He is… thankfulness and praise taking the lead.  It’s an every day kind of choice, and some days every minute.  So I keep coming back to Paul’s letter to the Philippians, soaking the reminders in, deep down to the heart.   It’s the best prescription there is for getting emotions back on track.

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When my soul is in the dumps, I rehearse
    everything I know of You,
From Jordan depths to Hermon heights,
    including Mount Mizar.
Chaos calls to chaos,
    to the tune of whitewater rapids.
Your breaking surf, Your thundering breakers
    crash and crush me.
Then God promises to love me all day,
    sing songs all through the night!
    My life is God’s prayer.

Psalm 42:8, The Message

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Better is a moment that I spend with You
Than a million other days away
I’m running, I’m running
I’m running to the secret place
Hands are lifted high, hearts awake to life
We are satisfied here with You, here with You
Chains will hit the floor, broken lives restored
We couldn’t ask for more here with You, here with You

The Secret Place, Phil Wickham